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Glacier Park

Zinke Calls for Changes to Glacier’s Reservation System

The U.S. congressman and former Interior Secretary attended a roundtable discussion in the Glacier gateway community of Columbia Falls, where he called for sweeping changes to a system set up to mitigate the park’s surging visitation

By Justin Franz, Montana Free Press
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks in West Glacier on March 10, 2017. Beacon file photo

On the first of every month from February until May, a new tradition is taking hold in Northwest Montana and elsewhere: Thousands of people log on Recreation.gov at 8 a.m. in hopes of getting a coveted ticket to Glacier National Park. 

But unlike the other cherished traditions in Glacier Park — from biking the Sun Road in the spring to picking huckleberries in summer — this new ritual is far from loved. And it’s now provoking criticism from people in high places, including Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke. On Tuesday, Zinke attended a roundtable discussion in the Glacier gateway community of Columbia Falls where he called for major changes to the system that was first introduced a few years ago to handle the park’s skyrocketing visitation. He also called for an investigation into the company that manages the ticketing website following a Wall Street Journal report that it was making millions in fees from the site

This summer, a $2 ticket will be required to drive into the park during most daytime hours in peak visitation months at West Glacier, Polebridge, Two Medicine, St. Mary and Many Glacier. Tickets will be needed at West Glacier and Polebrdige from May 26 to Sept. 10, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. Beginning July 1, tickets will be required to enter the Two Medicine and Many Glacier valleys and the St. Mary entrance to Going-to-the-Sun Road. That is a significant expansion from when the ticketed system was first introduced in 2021 and only included the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. But officials say the system is necessary to deal with ever-increasing congestion in and around the park in the summer, when most of its 3 million annual visitors arrive. 

Access on the west side of the park will also be further limited this year due to construction. In years past, people arriving at the west gate before 6 a.m. could get in without a ticket. That will now be prohibited due to road work. 

Entry tickets are released four months in advance on the first of every month, so in order to gain access in June, you would have needed to get a ticket on Feb. 1. Some tickets are also made available 24 hours in advance. But regardless of when the tickets are released, they often sell out in a matter of minutes, much to the chagrin of locals and visitors alike. 

Tuesday’s roundtable included business owners from the park’s gateway communities but did not include anyone from the National Park Service, although Zinke was scheduled to speak with Superintendent Dave Roemer later in the day. Those present said they were frustrated with the system both as business owners who rely on tourism and locals who enjoy going to the park. At least one person remarked that it was harder to get tickets to Glacier than it was a Taylor Swift concert. Business owners said the changes to the reservation system — from only needing a ticket to access the Sun Road two years ago to now needing one for nearly the entire park — is confusing to visitors. It also reduces access for those who are not computer literate or have poor internet connections.  

“This is a huge problem for the gateway communities because these communities rely on Glacier Park,” said Rhonda Fitzgerald, co-owner of the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish. 

There was also talk about how the park’s main attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, was opening later than it had in years past. Decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for the road to be cleared of snow and open to traffic in late May and early June. But in recent years, the road has typically opened in late June or early July. In fact, it’s been almost 20 years since the road last opened in May

During the meeting, Zinke was heavily critical of park managers, who he accused of wanting to reduce public access. 

“We have seen a steady decline in (access),” Zinke said. “I think their nirvana would be a park ranger wearing a GoPro where the public would only experience the park remotely.” 

Zinke, a Republican and the former secretary of the Department of the Interior, concluded the meeting by saying that he would ask the park to make dramatic changes to the system. Specifically, he said he wanted to see the afternoon non-ticket access to move from 3 p.m. to 1 p.m., enabling locals to access the park earlier in the afternoon. He also called for ticketed entry for the Two Medicine and Many Glacier valleys to be eliminated. In the long-term, he said he’d like the Park Service to improve public transit in the park, so more people could get in and out of Glacier. 

When reached by Montana Free Press, a spokesperson for Glacier National Park declined to comment on Zinke’s proposal. 

Shortly after Zinke’s roundtable discussion, his office sent out a press release announcing that he was calling for an investigation into Booz Allen, the contractor that runs Recreation.gov, the e-commerce site where people get tickets for activities on federal lands. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company was making millions on small fees paid by visitors

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.

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