Six months into the push to rebuild Sperry Chalet, Doug Mitchell was hopeful for its future.
“The Sperry experience will be here for people 100 years from now,” the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s executive director predicted. Addressing about 200 guests at Flathead Valley Community College Wednesday night, he said the burned lodge’s next century ”is going to start being planned right here, by you, tonight.”
Glacier aims to rebuild Sperry by 2020, and opened a scoping period for the project’s environmental assessment Wednesday. Its meeting drew a crowd eager to learn about the recovery and discuss next steps.
The lodge’s August 2017 loss to the Sprague Fire “felt like losing a relative almost,” remarked Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow. “It’s part of our background and our psyche.”
But the rebuilding process has moved forward, he said, explaining that the National Park Service had come up with about $350,000 for a schematic design process, and awarded a contract for it to Colorado architectural firm Anderson Hallas, which worked on the recent renovation of Many Glacier Hotel.
Mary Riddle, the park’s chief of planning, explained that they were eying four potential paths forward:
1. Restoring the dormitory as “close as it was” before the fire, with some minimal updates for current building codes and safety standards.
2. Restoring Sperry “in place, but modernized.” This option would maintain as many of the building’s historic elements as possible, but make more extensive updates to the interior. These would include insulating the famously thin walls, a step backed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
3. Building an entirely new dormitory in a nearby, less avalanche-prone location.
4. Creating a seasonal, lower-impact backcountry facility, perhaps using canvas tents or yurts.
The latter two options would preserve and interpret the old chalet’s walls for visitors.
Mow said that the scoping period for these four paths “is on a very aggressive schedule.” It will run until April 2, with two more not-yet-scheduled public meetings. He said cost estimates for the four options should be ready by June. Meanwhile, the park plans to complete the environmental assessment of options by September.
“Once we know we have construction funding, we’ll undertake design development, and then we hope that actual construction will begin in 2019 and if needed stretch to 2020 for completion.”
Plenty of challenges and uncertainties lie ahead. The site is inaccessible by heavy machinery and snow-bound much of the year, giving precious little time for construction.
Deputy superintendent Eric Smith said “the biggest challenge that I see right now is the unknown condition of the stone [walls], and if there’s going to need to be any stone replacement.” He said a recent flyover had shown the walls and chimneys still standing, but a more thorough assessment was still in the works.
During the question-and-answer session, audience members raised other issues, including the new lodge’s capacity, accessibility for disabled guests and the needs of nearby wildlife – all needs that the planning process will have to take into account.
Then there’s the matter of cost. Mow said the park only has “vague cost estimates” for the four proposals. He expects a federal appropriation to cover the bulk of the construction costs, but said “that is still in the works.”
Despite these difficulties, attendees Bobby Lopp and Cindy Conroy were eager to see Sperry rise again.
“I’ve been going up there since I was a young kid,” Lopp said. “I hope that the experience stays the same,” especially the number of guests at the lodge and the family style meals where “you get introduced to people from all over the world.”
Conroy said she favored the “in place, but modernized” Sperry called for in Option 2. “I’d like to see it remain pretty much the way it has been, with a little bit of an updated version.”
After the event, Mow told the Daily Inter Lake that one of his major concerns was the site’s future suitability.
“I’m concerned that if we’re going to make a significant investment for the next hundred years, that it’s not something that can get wiped away by a really bad winter or a really bad avalanche.”
“We’ll have to take all of that into consideration as we move forward.”
Along the way, Mow’s likely to hear plenty from Flathead residents.
“I’ve said repeatedly that what I find about working at Glacier is just the deep connection that people have” to the park. He was holding a letter and photograph just given to him by a local family about their time there.
“It’s multi-generational,” he reflected. “We talk about the past 100 years and we look forward to the next 100 years. It really gives us a certain gravitas to think about a project like this.”
Glacier will be taking public comments on the scoping document until April 2. It is available at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/sperrychalet2018. Comments may be submitted through that website, or mailed to Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Sperry Chalet, PO Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.