Glacier eyes ‘one car in, one car out’ rules to ease crowding

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Ben Farley, left and Bennett Christianson toss a football while cooling off in Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park in this file photo. (Hungry Horse News)

If the crowds of last summer continue, Glacier National Park is considering implementing a “one car in, one car out,” plan for some of its dead-end roads, Superintendent Jeff Mow said last week during a talk in Kalispell.

The overcrowding problem was particularly acute at Bowman Lake, where parking would fill to capacity and people would park on the side of the narrow, dirt road. Some people last summer even rented a camping spot so they would have a place to park.

Bowman is one of the most popular places in the North Fork.

As a result, the park is considering closing gates or placing barricades – but only as needed.

Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley later noted that the greater issue is one of safety — with overcrowding, emergency vehicles can’t get in or out. The park would notify visitors at entrance stations of closures, online and via social media, like Twitter, Alley said.

Two Medicine, which is also a dead-end road, could also see similar measures on days that parking becomes a problem. The park would make accommodations for backcountry permit holders, such as reserving parking spots, Alley noted.

Last summer saw record crowds in Glacier, as the park service celebrated its centennial year. Just under 3 million people visited Glacier.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road also saw long lines at peak times this summer.

A corridor management plan for the Sun Road, which will look to address crowding on the highway, will be released in August, Mow said.

Mow also took the opportunity to thank park staff and volunteers for a successful centennial year in 2016, saying they “performed what I consider a miracle.”

Glacier Park visitation increased 23 percent last year, but Mow said despite the influx and parking congestion, staff received a higher rate of positive comments than ever.

“The landscape is powerful. Everyone has huge smiles; they’re happy to be there,” Mow said.

William Hrabec, Maintenance Coordinator for Highways and Infrastructure for Parks Canada, complimented Mow on Glacier’s successful management of the visitation boom lat year.

“It’s a tough fine line trying to accommodate everyone’s needs,” Hrabec said.

Waterton is facing similar challenges with increased visitation and traffic, and may count cars entering the park this year to ease the anticipated congestion.

When asked about the city of Columbia Falls’ desire to have North Fork paved to the Camas Creek entrance, Mow replied, “I can appreciate their perspective.”

The park has not taken positions on such matters in the past, and generally, “we would manage for a more rustic, primitive experience,” he said.

However, Mow continued, “If we experience huge traffic, we would want to make improvements.”

Mow also gave a summary of last year’s successful undertakings. In 2016, Glacier took part in the Hands Across Borders workshop, in which international participants learned from one another about transboundary conservation practices. Mow said it took over two years of work to make the workshop happen, and noted that “the energy created continues on.”

In 2018, he hopes Glacier will participate in a more locally-centered transboundary conservation workshop.

Mow also cited the importance of working with native communities. Last year, the Blackfeet were asked to perform a prayer at Logan Pass, the first since the road was opened in 1932. The tribe and the park is also hoping to reintroduce a wild bison herd to the Chief Mountain area. Mow doesn’t expect the reintroduction to happen for at least a couple years, but said there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the concept.

In addition to praising park staff and volunteers for their hard work and great attitudes, Mow thanked park partners for helping provide a “seamless” visitor experience outside park boundaries.

Being at the Crown of the Continent is a big responsibility.

“We know wildlife doesn’t stop at park borders. We know visitors don’t stop at park borders. We know our waters continue elsewhere,” he said.

Glacier’s influence also presents cultural opportunities to tell the story of larger landscapes, Mow said.

“I often think of my job as superintendent as to look back at where we came from and to look forward into the future,” he said.

Aside from crowds, another troublesome issue for Glacier is aquatic invasive species, including zebra and quagga mussels. When the first hit in Montana occurred, Glacier closed all its waters to boating this past November. Mow plans to open the “spigot” for boating with a slight trickle and gradually expand watercraft opportunities. Glacier drains into the Hudson Bay, the Missouri, and the Columbia River, so the introduction of aquatic invasives into Glacier could spell doom for many other areas.

But money is tight, with Glacier’s recent inflation-corrected funding being equal to that of 2001.

“We don’t have a lot of depth in our organization to respond to new issues,” he said.

This year’s projects are challenged by the need to become sustainable in a flat-budget period, Mow remarked.

Still, he’s optimistic. “We’ve got great things in store,” Mow promised.

Over the next five to 10 years, in partnership with Canada and the native communities on both sides of the park, Glacier has several strategic goals. Mow said the park will excel in natural and cultural conservation, protect resources, be a model of transboundary conservation, connect with the next generation of stewards through outreach and education, lead in response to climate change, and ensure a great visitor experience.

Nikki Eisinger, director of Development for the Glacier National Park Conservancy, applauded the “collaborative park leader and caring public” for such success last year. The Conservancy is the fundraising arm of the park, and focuses on education, research, and preservation. Donors help the park thrive, especially in periods of thin federal funding.

“It’s the people in this valley who are helping get stuff done,” Eisinger said.

In 2016, $2.2 million from donors was used to fund 46 park projects. This year, there are 70 projects on the drawing board.

One of the most notable undertakings in 2017 is the continued restoration of Many Glacier Hotel, which will be funded mostly by corporate donors, including Pendleton and REI Missoula.

“It’s symbolic of what our staff does, and what our donors do, that Glacier is such a jewel,” Eisinger noted.

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