Glacier's road is going to the dogs

  • Tunnel and parapet on Going-to-the-Sun Highway

    George A. Grant collection

WEST GLACIER, Mont. - The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, saw the Going-to-the-Sun road as a way to hold Glacier National Park together. Mather proposed building the road in the early 1920s to lure a "great flow of tourist gold" to remote northern Montana, and to convince miners and loggers that the park's beauty was more precious than its minerals and timber.

Mather didn't want just any old road in his park. He wanted to blend it with the landscape, "with the least marring of native beauty."

In an engineering feat remarkable for its time, the National Park Service worked for eight years with the Bureau of Public Roads to hang a road across the glacier-carved walls of Haystack Butte and the Garden Wall and through 6,646-foot Logan Pass. Workers faced sheer cliffs and 60-foot snowdrifts. They bored through solid rock and laid thousands of cubic yards of masonry guardrails and arched bridges. Three men died during construction.

The road was officially opened to traffic in 1933, and named after nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, said to bear the image of a deity who taught the Blackfeet Indians how to hunt.

Going-to-the-Sun Road helped to forever wed national parks with the automobile. Today, 65 years after the road opened, more than 600,000 vehicles follow the narrow, winding track each summer, stopping for photo shoots of wildflowers and lolling mountain goats.

Each spring, the Park Service blasts through snowdrifts with dynamite and snowplows to get the road open. Business people in surrounding towns eagerly anticipate the first car over Logan Pass, marking the symbolic opening of the summer tourist season.

But the 10-mile alpine stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road is going to the dogs. The upper stretches of the only road designated a National Historic Monument need a major overhaul and locals fear their "flow of tourist gold" will be cut off.

Businesses up in arms

Casual motorists driving up to Logan Pass probably don't see the extreme damage. They may notice a few frost heaves, cracks in the hot top, and places where the original stone guardwalls have been replaced by concrete "Jersey" barriers.

But water seeping from the mountainsides and tumbling streams and avalanches have taken their toll, says Glacier landscape architect Bob Dunkley. The park's roads budget hasn't kept pace with the damage, he says, and officials worry that portions of the road could wash out completely before repair crews get to them.

As a part of the park's General Management Plan, due out this summer, officials have proposed several different solutions (HCN, 9/30/96). One plan would close the road for four to six years and spend $70 million to fix it all at once. Another plan calls for partial road closures for 10 years, including shutting it down after Labor Day and during the night. Work would be restricted to one side of the road at a time, allowing traffic to and from Logan Pass on the opposite side.

Any talk of closing the road for an extended period of time brings vehement protests from local businesspeople.

"They might as well close down every business here," says Wayne Mackie, owner of Rawhide Trading Post a few miles west of the park entrance. "It would not only be devastating to the economy around the park, but also to nearby towns." Economic models show that tourism generates about $160 million and 2,400 jobs in Glacier each year, mostly during the four or five months the road is open.

A 1997 survey showed that 62 percent of park visitors would still visit the park if the road were completely off limits. About 80 percent said they would visit if they had one-way access to Logan Pass. But most locals don't trust the numbers.

"We'll starve," says Don Demoret, owner of the Montana Fur Trading Company. Demoret wants to see the work completed quickly, even if it means modernizing the road. "It's not worth trying to save historic aspects if they have to close the road for five years. They need to do what needs to be done without closing that road."

"We all know the road needs the work," says Chris Drake, manager of the Tamarack Lodge. "But to modernize it would take away from the park. People don't come here to see metal guard rails. You can see cement retaining walls anywhere."

The park's Bob Dunkley agrees. "Driving Going-to-the-Sun is an historic experience," he says. "The look of the road is very important. This is not just a way to get across the pass." Dunkley and other officials want to preserve the historic integrity of the original stonework on 117 retaining walls that are capped by 40,000 feet of crenelated stone guardwalls.

John Kilpatrick, Glacier's chief of facilities management, sympathizes with business owners. "It's easy for engineers to focus on the fix and not take in other ramifications," he says. "These people provide necessary services that the park can't, or can't do well."

Nature may decide

A third option under the General Management Plan would allow the Park Service to stretch the repairs out over 50 years, a piecemeal approach engineers estimate would cost $196 million to $210 million. But Mother Nature may not give them the time, says Kilpatrick. "Whenever you drag out a project like this you leave yourself open to catastrophic problems."

In 1995, the park got a good look at what's in store for construction crews when workers began rebuilding the parking lot at Logan Pass, and a three-quarter-mile stretch of road. Officials thought the visitors center would be closed for only one season; instead it was closed for two. The entire project took three years to complete and cost $4 million.

"All the work becomes weather related," Dunkley said. "It's a whole different world up there, with frequent low visibility, rain and wind. Even within the Park Service, it's hard to convince people in Washington, D.C., that these are the conditions we have to work under."

The public will have a chance to comment on the alternatives later this summer when the park releases its General Management Plan. For details, call Glacier National Park at 406/888-7800.

Mark Matthews freelances from Missoula, Montana.

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