Glacier Park finds itself inundated

  • Tourists train their binoculars on mountain goats

    Marshall Noice

Some Montanans had a rude awakening this summer when officials announced the end of business-as-usual in Glacier National Park. In July, park Superintendent David Mihalic released management proposals that included closing roads and campgrounds, removing park buildings, and limiting access to the much-loved Going-to-the-Sun Highway.

These "preliminary alternatives," the first steps in revising the 1977 General Management Plan, raised a resounding cry of opposition from traditional park users and the local tourism industry.

The backlash has sent conservationists scrambling for support and Glacier's planners back to the drawing board.

At the root of the debate is a word that has become taboo in Montana: wilderness. In the 1970s, park officials recommended roughly 95 percent of the park for wilderness protection. While Congress has yet to pass a bill designating any of the park as wilderness, managers must treat it as such until a final decision is made.

Over the past three decades, a steady increase in visitation has put mounting pressure on Glacier's limited staff and resources. Roughly 2 million people visit Glacier each year, and park officials expect 3 million by 2020. The crush is already being felt. This summer, visitors waited 40 minutes for a parking space at Logan Pass, says the park's planning chief, Jim Tilmant. Campgrounds were full every night, and even backcountry permits were tough to come by.

Early this year, park officials began to revise the park's management plan. People who wanted a less congested park spoke up loudly, Tilmant recalls. In July, the park released preliminary alternatives to test the waters: One alternative would increase development inside the park and extend the park season into the fall, winter and spring. Another alternative would close roads, create a public transit system and move some existing buildings outside park boundaries.

The alternatives hit the multiple-use crowd head-on. At a series of public meetings around the region this summer, they decried the proposals as an effort to lock up public lands. Dale Williams of the Montanans for Multiple Use accused the Park Service of leaning too far toward conservation while neglecting the public's right to access the park.

Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns added to the pressure with a letter to Superintendent Mihalic. "The (preliminary alternatives) as outlined, would have a tremendously devastating impact on the businesses of the entire northwest corner of Montana ... I do not want to see Glacier National Park become a de facto wilderness area."

The conservation sentiment evident earlier in the summer was drowned in the roar of opposition. Park planners felt abandoned. "When you turn around to see where your friends are and they're not there, it makes it hard," Mihalic said.

"We were caught off guard by the presence of the wise-use people and planning foes at the meetings," says Jill Duryee of the Montana Wilderness Association. "They were notified and organized." She says the atmosphere at the meetings was confrontational and intimidating.

For his part, Montana's Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has added an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill that would require Glacier planners to get a congressional stamp of approval before moving ahead with any new plan. He calls the amendment "a final line of defense against illogical or unresponsive decision-making by the National Park Service."

Conservationist Duryee calls the amendment political posturing, and says that while she has some disagreements with park planners, "they're looking in the right direction." She says the Park Service should take into account Glacier's central role in a greater ecosystem. Her group is seeking the creation of a voluntary transit system and permanent bans on jet skis and scenic overflights.

"When they said the parks were for people, they never meant they were for all of the people all in the same day," says Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Missoula. He adds, "If the public doesn't get involved, politicians and vested interests (such as park concessionaires and the tourism industry) will play the dominant role in the decision."

"Maybe these (proposals) are too radical," says Tilmant, who has received between 600 and 700 letters of response, many of them in opposition to the plans. He hopes that the draft environmental impact statement will be complete by next summer.

The public comment period on the preliminary alternatives ends on Oct. 1. Citizens will have more chances to participate when the draft EIS is released.

For a copy of the preliminary alternatives, or to send suggestions, write Glacier National Park, GMP/EIS Project, West Glacier, MT 59936-0128, or call 406/888-7898 or 406/888-7913.

The writer is a former HCN intern who lives in Missoula, Montana.

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