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Know the West

Peace and quiet count in Glacier National Park

  Last summer, while backpacking with friends in Glacier National Park, Mont., a familiar "whup, whup, whup" filled the air. The helicopter dropped over Kipp Peak towards us, its make and color belonging to a local -- and booming -- helicopter-tour company. Our solitude was disrupted; helicopter noise drowned out nature’s sounds.

Despite being closer to 50 than 15, I responded in a juvenile fashion: My friends and I turned around and dropped our pants. We demonstrated our wilderness ethics and we made our stand, in a manner of speaking.

It was not the first time. This practice began several years ago when repeated low-flying helicopter tours interrupted a high-elevation hike. Exasperated, in unison, we’d moon the next chopper.

In a park deemed 95 percent wilderness, air traffic almost always seems hostile as well as intrusive. Our three-month summer is crammed with nearly1,500 scenic flights, disturbing people and disrupting wildlife denning, migrating, mating, nesting and feeding. Biologists are the ones who have to tell us this; Canada lynx, gray wolves, and grizzly bears cannot utter their thoughts.

For these reasons, Glacier’s management seeks to ban or limit the air-tour business. Although the National Park Service regulates every concession in the park, including hotels, boats, guiding operations and bus tours, the Federal Aviation Administration supervises air space. Above the park the Park Service lacks the power to regulate the number of flights, or their duration,location and altitude. Only an act of Congress would allow the agency to dictate a natural soundscape.

I know that mooning helicopters gains me no points in the book of adult behavior. And I know my own behavior is not flawless; I, too, have succumbed to temptation. Last September, my job one day as a guide entailed hiking with several guests to Hidden Lake, then driving them to catch a helicopter ride across the park. When I was asked to accompany tourists on the flight, I leaped into the cockpit like a grizzly going after a carcass.

Noisy? Yes. But I confess I relished every minute flying back and forth over the magnificent Continental Divide. We soared above a high route I’d hiked and flew beside a glacier only distantly seen from a trail. I cringed, hoping no climbers stood atop Mount Jackson as we cruised under its summit -- the very summit where I had mooned offending helicopters.

I justified my ride with: "I had to do it for work." But the thrum of helicopter blades muffled this hollow excuse.

This summer, the Park Service seems to face a similar quandary in the air. Glacier’s current increase in administrative flights clashes with its philosophical stance regarding commercial air tours. "Although the agency’s General Management Plan seeks to ban scenic air tours," explains Mary Riddle, Glacier’s environmental protection and compliance Officer, "it does not ban administrative flights."

The difference? Riddle says: "While longer scenic air tours fulfill a recreational desire, short-term administrative flights are essential for operations." Park Service flights also come with stringent review, she adds.

But now the Park Service wants to more than double its flights, saying many projects need to be completed quickly. In May 2003, the agency released an Environmental Assessment proposing to bump up its 50 annual airplane and helicopter flights to 112.

After public comment, the park found that 10 flights could be eliminated, while the remaining flights would result in no significant impact. In June, the agency sent aircraft to remove human waste from ineffective composting toilets at Granite Park Chalet, and delivered crews and supplies to rehabilitate historic Porcupine Lookout and repair and maintain radio towers. Flights also monitored wildlife, especially endangered or threatened species. All seem reasonable purposes.

Removing human waste from the chalet by mule, for example, would require over 40 trips on a popular hiking trail. Porcupine Lookout has no trail for safe employee access or mules, and speedy radio communication repairs are vital to maintain safety throughout the park and security at Goat Haunt, the entry point from Canada.

I believe the Park Service strives to be conscientious about its flights over the park. By avoiding sensitive wildlife corridors, scheduling flights when tourists are few, and engineering loads for minimal trips, the park will minimize the damage. Yet though the impacts may not be as big as the glaciers which gouged the park’s sediments, every flight sunders the wilderness.

As the summer season opens wide and tourists take their flights over the park, I think about my own shortcomings. While the ironies of a decision to fly linger in the air, two facts remain: Moral foibles are intrinsic to humans, and flights disrupt the wilderness.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a hiking guide in Glacier National Park and lives in Whitefish, Montana.