Glacier Park

On the Continental Divide, the Gulf Widens Over Glacier Park’s Reservation System

As park officials prepare for another season of ticketed entry, residents on its east and west sides see starkly different summers on the horizon

By Denali Sagner
A sign informs motorists the parking lots in at Bowman and Kintla Lakes are full at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park in the North Fork on June 30, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As motorists traverse from the west side to the east side of Glacier National Park, dense greenery and jagged peaks give way to sparser forests and wider plains, an ecological shift that is unmistakable to even a first-time tourist. In the span of a mere 50 miles, the Going-to-the-Sun Road takes visitors on a journey between two distinctive landscapes that define Montana.

Yet the disparities on the two sides of the park extend far beyond Glacier’s physical scenery, as its western and eastern gateway towns report stories of vastly different relationships with the region’s tourism economy and decisions dictated by park leadership from its headquarters in West Glacier — differences that have come to a head with recent expansions to the park’s vehicle reservation system.

“The west side isn’t the east side,” Nathan St. Goddard, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and owner of the campground and restaurant Johnson’s of St. Mary, said. “The divide is super strong.”

Glacier National Park officials on Dec. 16 announced changes to the park’s vehicle reservation policy, which in its third year will require advanced reservations to access the park’s Two Medicine and Many Glacier entrances, as well as the Going-to-the-Sun Road and North Fork entrances, where a similar managed-access program existed in 2022. The system’s expansion has faced pushback from members of the public, with residents and visitors lamenting restricted access to public land and its implications for the local economy. As the park prepares for the 2023 season, conflicts over ticketing have revealed the disparities between policy implications on the park’s two sides, as well as the difficulties of managing a site that is both a tourist magnet and an integral piece of local culture.

Park officials say the decision to amend the reservation system came after comprehensive data analysis and meetings with local stakeholders. Based on feedback, park officials say they chose to narrow the reservation time slot at Two Medicine, Many Glacier and the St. Mary entrances to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, implementing those reservations in July rather than in June, and allowing visitors to enter the park without a reservation after 3 p.m., rather than waiting until after 4 p.m., as was the rule last summer.

“Through the pilot process, the park is engaged in continued learning about the various strategies used. The park has also engaged with stakeholders and local communities to inform the design of the pilot each year,” park officials stated in a Dec. 16 press release announcing the changes.

However, east side residents and business owners expressed frustration over both the expanded reservation system and the process that bore it, saying they were not adequately consulted by the park and that their bottom-lines may suffer due to the restrictions at the Two Medicine and Many Glacier gates.

Nicole Edwards, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and the owner of Rising Wolf Outfitters, one of the only outdoor recreation outfitters on the east side, voiced concerns about her operation’s ability to survive the new ticketing system.

“We’re scrambling to accommodate things as best we can,” Edwards said.

Though tribal members like Edwards can access the park without restrictions under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, Edwards said she will likely not be able to take groups in for guided tours, which will drive down business drastically. While tourists can bypass the reservation system by purchasing tours and rentals from authorized park concessioners, such as Glacier Park Boat Company, Xanterra and Glacier Guides, the same exemptions do not apply to businesses like Edwards’.

“As a Blackfeet tribal member, historically, that is all Blackfeet land,” Edwards said. “You would think that tribal members would be able to have access and bring people in.”

Edwards and other gateway community residents said tourists are already less likely to visit the east side, and fear that adding the barrier of reservations may further deter them.

“The east side is already not developed like the west side is,” Edwards said. “It’s already tough.”

Concerns over decreased visitation under the ticketing system reflect vastly different tourism ecosystems on the two sides of the Continental Divide: the popular western destinations of West Glacier, Columbia Falls, and surrounding towns in Flathead County, and the sparser eastern outposts of St. Mary, Babb and East Glacier Park Village, which rely more heavily on summer visitation to the park.

“On the west side, you can go to Seeley-Swan, you can go to Whitefish, you can go to Kalispell,” St. Goddard said, explaining that visitors may be deterred from visiting the east side without a reservation, given its limited infrastructure, yet will likely continue patronizing the more built-up west side. “It’s going to impact businesses for sure.”

According to the National Park Service, 3.1 million visitors spent an estimated $384 million in local gateway regions while visiting Glacier National Park in 2021. Tourist dollars supported a total of 5,980 jobs and $193 million in labor income — a lifeline to the restaurants, lodges and shops that dot many gateway towns.

Despite concerns about the fate of local businesses, some praised the system and expressed optimism about the tourism economy in 2023.

Lucy Guthrie, spokesperson for the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, said the system will make visitation more effective and sustainable, and may drive increased traffic to businesses on the east side, as visitors wait in gateway towns to enter the park after 3 p.m.

Edwards expressed skepticism about this prediction, however, saying it may create chaos in the small, tribal towns.

“Its hard to know what it’s going to be like. Yeah, they can wait around, but where are they going to wait on the east side?” she said. “I feel like there’s going to be lots of overflow on tribal land.”

Amy Andreas, a resident of East Glacier who has worked in the Browning Public Schools for 22 years, expressed concern that the system will “further isolate our communities.”

In addition to economic concerns, residents said the national park, which is a lifeline to native communities and locals, feels increasingly inaccessible as more and more entrances fall under the reservation system.

Brandie Kittle, a realtor who lives in Essex, said she will not visit the park at all this summer.

“I will never get a reservation,” Kittle told the Beacon. “I get a park pass and I shouldn’t have to pay for a reservation. It’s just frustrating.”

St. Goddard acknowledged that the Park Service held stakeholder meetings, where local business leaders were given a space to voice concerns. However, he characterized the meetings as inadequate in the larger picture of the park’s relationship to its Indigenous neighbors.

“I understand their obligation. Their responsibility is to protect the park. But we’ve been here longer than the park,” St. Goddard said, adding that while agency officials did solicit feedback, many in the community felt their decisions had already been reached by the time residents were consulted.

 “It doesn’t matter how it affects us,” Edwards said, discussing the agency’s relationship with small business owners like herself. “We just have to be resilient and hopefully we can still make it through. We’re not considered stakeholders and we were not a part in that decision making.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.