A trial run at Glacier

  In the late 1980s, Republican Rep. Ron Marlenee came over from his eastern Montana district to make speeches in the Flathead Basin. In those speeches, he demanded that Gil Lusk get back inside Glacier National Park.


At the time, Lusk had been superintendent of the 1 million-acre park up against the Canadian border for seven years. But unlike almost all other superintendents in the National Park Service, Lusk didn't live in a comfortable house in the protected and beautiful confines of his park. Instead, he lived in the nearby town of Kalispell. Assistant Superintendent Pete Peterson lived in the superintendent's house and oversaw the operation of the park.


It wasn't so much Lusk's choice of housing as his choice of work that angered the conservative Marlenee. Lusk used his freedom from the day-to-day management to encourage the counties and towns adjoining Glacier to plan their futures so as to reduce their impacts on the land surrounding Glacier.


In a fall 1993 interview, while he was still superintendent, Lusk said, "All we ask is that the communities make plans. Without plans, the private lands around the park will become a huge threat to the park. And then national groups will demand that the park be expanded, and that will destabilize the community."


Even if Glacier could depend on congressional land purchases to protect the park from encroachment, Lusk does not think that's the correct approach.


"I don't want a bigger Glacier National Park. We have to work with our communities. If the people who live here won't protect the park, it can't be protected. They have to understand the economic value (of the park) so they themselves become protective of it and of their communities."


Marlenee was not the only critic of Lusk's focus on planning and community education. Recently, after a promising start, a well-supported community planning effort in the Flathead Basin south of Glacier has been fiercely attacked by private-property advocates.


Lusk also came under internal attack during his tenure at Glacier. He said, "Some members of our staff don't appreciate or support these long-range efforts. This is a time of declining budgets; we're cutting seasonals. People who are up to their necks in elephant shit don't appreciate rainbows."


The National Park Service structure was also against Lusk's approach. Peterson carried much of the operational burden that Lusk would have in a normal operation, but made less money. Lusk said, "Pete runs the park. Therefore, we should pay assistant superintendents as much as superintendents."


In addition to working with communities for land-use plans around the park, he also worked hard to convince natural resource companies to protect the land around the park that grizzlies, wolves and other species must use.


"You can do it without affecting private property. We know we will get oil and gas development eventually." Right now, the oil and gas industry operates in a certain way, he said. "We say to industry: You may want to change your operating paradigm. You may want to develop fields at a much slower rate. Develop one area, then restore it and move on to the next."


That would do more than just help the park. "It can also bring the community some kind of economic stability. But to do this takes a lot of networking, lots of time."


Lusk said his model for the parks resembles that of the Forest Service. That agency's founder, Gifford Pinchot, "wedded the national forests to local communities' through federal payment of timber receipts to counties and the like. "But national parks were different - their constituencies were national. Often they were created in opposition to local interests. When there's a threat to the parks, our visitors from afar or national groups go to the Congress for help."


The answer, said Lusk, is "to at least start a dialogue with the communities. We've been hesitant to point out the economic value of parks. It's not just service, or servant, jobs. It's much more."


As his part of the dialogue, Lusk promised gateway communities that Glacier would not expand campgrounds or build worker housing in the park. Instead, he encouraged campground development on private ground near the park and encouraged employees to live in the towns.


As for the park's economy, in 1993 Glacier had a $7 million operating budget, which Lusk described as $3 million short of what its 100 permanent and 80 seasonal employees needed. It collected $1.5 million from visitors, but that went to the U.S. Treasury.


Lusk said, "To charge $5 for a seven-day experience for a carload of people is not a realistic fee. If we had a realistic fee (and could keep the income) we could manage."


When Lusk left Glacier this spring, he became head of the Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon. Since April he has been in charge of developing a new training strategy for National Park Service employees, teaching them how to work in a new world, freer of the Park Service's traditional command-and-control approach. He said recently that what he learned at Glacier will be "incorporated into the Park Service's new training effort," dubbed the National Training and Development Strategy.


Lusk believes that the agency's restructuring is necessary and inevitable. "We have to get the decision-making closer to the field and eliminate second-guessing, in which you have large numbers of administrative layers that have to review any decision. We have to move through the fear and distrust" of interacting with local people. "We can't keep managing from a distance."


Did Lusk's tenure at Glacier have a lasting impact? Lusk's successor as superintendent, David Mihalic, has just bought a home in Columbia Falls. Assistant Superintendent Pete Peterson will continue to live in the park superintendent's house within the park. And Lusk guesses that community expectations of the Glacier superintendent may keep Mihalic almost as involved in outside-the-park issues as he was.


* Ed Marston