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