Zinke talks Sperry rebuild, parks funding

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From left: Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell, and US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in Columbia Falls on Saturday (Patrick Reilly/Daily Inter Lake)

On Saturday morning, employees of Glacier National Park and the Glacier National Park Conservancy welcomed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to Columbia Falls.

The Whitefish native had come to discuss two ventures with big implications for Glacier Country: the National Park Restoration Act and the rebuilding of Sperry Chalet.

Addressing reporters on the latter topic, Zinke said that “all of us are committed to rebuild her better than what it was before, and we’re going to do it under budget, ahead of schedule.”

As the Daily Inter Lake reported recently, Glacier National Park aims to design and build a new Sperry Chalet by 2020 – an ambitious schedule, given the site’s remote location and short summers. It’s currently seeking public comment on four possibilities: restoring the chalet largely as it was; restoring it “in place, but modernized;” building a new lodge nearby; and creating a seasonal camp.

“I’ve always liked Sperry the way she was — not necessarily the paper-thin walls,” Zinke said. His preference moving forward is “to make sure that we re-ignite the grandeur of what it was using probably better materials, maybe looking at fire code a little closer.” He added that the area’s avalanche risk would have to be accounted for in the rebuilding.

Both Zinke and Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said that so far, the vast majority of public comments have favored restoring Sperry as close as possible to its pre-fire state.

“The goal,” the secretary explained, “is to enclose it by the time the snow falls next.”

The project’s cost remains uncertain, as does the mix of public, philanthropic and insurance money that will cover it. But last month, Mow said he expected the bulk of funding to come from a federal appropriation.

Zinke said that he was willing to commit “whatever it takes” to the rebuilding effort.

“It should not be lack of funding, whatever the source, that creates drag in getting it done.”

Zinke also discussed a new funding proposal for the broader park system: the National Park Restoration Act, supported by a group of lawmakers that includes Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

It would direct a portion of revenues from energy production on federal lands and waters to an Interior fund which could be tapped for maintenance in national parks, which need over $11 billion worth of repairs. Zinke said that two other pieces of legislation would aim to create similar revenue streams for National Wildlife Refuges and Native American education.

The Trump administration called for this funding approach in its 10-year infrastructure investment plan, and stated that the total amount raised would be capped at $18 billion.

However, it’s not certain these proposals would bring in that much revenue, especially given the Interior’s recent decisions to repeal an Obama-era rule meant to close loopholes in the royalty-calculation process.

Asked if he was optimistic that the bill could generate enough revenue to fund the maintenance backlog. Zinke replied, “I’m optimistic it’ll pass,” before shifting to the bill’s prospects in the Senate and the potential for it to become a long-term means of funding Interior’s infrastructure.

It’s not the first proposal Zinke has made to fund national parks. Last fall, he proposed a “targeted fee increase” that would more than double the current entrance fees during peak season at 17 high-traffic national parks, including Glacier.

A comment period on that proposal closed last December, and Zinke said it remains under consideration.

“There is no chance, zero, that entrance fees can address an $11.7 billion backlog,” he said. “The focus on entrance fees was to give local superintendents more flexibility” in funding site-specific needs. Under the system, 80 percent of fees would stay within the park where they were collected.

The prospect of having to pay $70 for a seven-day vehicle pass to Glacier drew concern in Northwest Montana. But Zinke tried to put the increase in perspective, noting the many vehicles he had seen entering parks with multiple passengers, and the National Park Service’s discount programs for veterans, the elderly, and other groups.

Also, the cost of an annual all-parks pass would remain $80. “Still the best bargain in America is the pass,” Zinke said.

“I took my family to a theater with popcorn and it was just about the same price as a year park pass.”

The coming months promise more details about these and the many other Interior initiatives that could make themselves felt in Northwest Montana. But as he works to raise funds for the Sperry rebuilding, the Glacier Conservancy’s executive director, Doug Mitchell, had positive things to say after his meeting with Zinke.

“Right now it feels like we’re on a very good path,” he told the Inter Lake. “We’re very encouraged.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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