Who has the most clout in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana? Thousands of citizens who took part in an environmental impact study, or a railroad that wants to control avalanches as cheaply as possible? If you guessed the railroad, it seems you’re right.
Four years ago, avalanches halted train service for 30 hours, twice derailed an empty freight train and nearly slammed into a cleanup crew. Afterward, Burlington Northern asked the Park Service for a permit to use explosives to control avalanches originating in the park. The company also contracted for an avalanche study, which identified 12 slide paths likely to affect the railway. The avalanche study suggested expanding the snowsheds, among other recommendations.
But the company had a different idea. It claimed that setting off controlled avalanches on park hillsides each winter was the best and least expensive to address its safety and financial concerns.
But there are other things to worry about in a national park. The Park Service’s draft environmental impact statement in 2006 found that explosives would disrupt the park's natural avalanche regime, altering vegetation, hydrology and wildlife habitat. Grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, elk and many other wild animals use the area. Blasting means they could suffer direct death, displacement, or deafness and other injuries. Fixed gunning structures and shrapnel would also litter an area that’s been recommended for wilderness, while unexploded ordnance would lead to year-round closures.
Much like an earlier study, the draft EIS recommended that the railroad expand its snowsheds. It pointed out that eliminating train delays and preventing spills would offset the considerable cost, estimated at over $100 million. In contrast, a blasting program in the park would cost up to 2.2 million dollars annually, but would not eliminate the threat of derailments and spills.
About 13,000 people commented on the draft EIS, with all but a handful supporting snowsheds. But the railroad continued pressing for the cheaper alternative of explosives, even as it reported multibillion-dollar profits. After analyzing the comments, the Park Service completed a final EIS recommending snowsheds over explosives.
And that's when things went off track. Ordinarily, local officials forward a final EIS to Park Service bosses in Washington, D.C., who usually take a month to publish their final result in the Federal Register. The decision becomes final soon afterward. Under the Bush administration, however, local decisions must now pass the additional scrutiny of Interior Department officials. Until they approve, no decision is official, and the public cannot view the EIS.
Local officials sent their EIS on its daunting trip to Washington more than seven months ago. With no technical work remaining, publication should have occurred long ago. Instead, at the height of Montana’s avalanche season, the policy remains in limbo.
Park Service employees have inquired about the delay, of course, but they apparently receive only vague responses from the Interior Department. Meanwhile, in an unusual move, the railroad attempted to withdraw its permit request. Perhaps it hopes to try the whole process again at a later date. Or maybe it hopes to avoid pressure for new sheds. Whatever the case, it appears that friends in the Interior Department are listening.
Delaying -- or worse, burying -- the environmental impact statement is wrong on many levels. First, it’s a disservice to railroad employees, who deserve safe working conditions in the canyon. Next, it poorly serves residents of northwestern Montana. Burlington Northern trains carry oil and other hazardous materials. By not adequately protecting the cargo from avalanches, the railroad jeopardizes the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, a source of clean water, recreation, revenue and more.
As one of the 13,000 people who participated in the public comment period, I believe inaction in Washington is a callous response to our civic involvement.
If the Bush administration shelved the EIS, it would not be its first interference with local public lands decisions. Residents of Idaho and Montana remember the 2001 plan for grizzly bear recovery in the Selway-Bitterroot. That plan was years in the making and historic for the cooperation it created among ranchers, timber companies and conservationists. It was abruptly halted without explanation when President Bush took office. The Forest Service’s Roadless Rule met a similar fate, even after over a million people participated in the comment period.
In another example, the Interior Department recently announced it will review decisions by former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald. A Bush administration appointee, she is an engineer with no science background who overruled decisions about endangered species decisions to benefit developers.
Each of these examples reveals an antipathy for locally produced public lands decisions. They also starkly deviate from the Republican commitment to local autonomy. And every time officials railroad a policy developed with citizen involvement, they alienate all of us who who love our public lands.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works as a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska and spends winters in northwestern Montana.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.