As Glacier National Park continues to see changes in areas like visitation and wildfire frequency, Superintendent Jeff Mow says the future requires flexibility and “all hands on deck” to adapt.
Mow gave an update on Glacier in 2018 and 2019 during a talk before the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce last week at the Moose Lodge.
Recounting the events related to the park in the last several months, Mow pointed to the Howe Ridge fire in August and the federal government shutdown in January as two key times for Glacier.
The Howe Ridge fire, which erupted Aug. 10 last year on the north side of Lake McDonald, showed its impacts immediately, Mow said, as the fire consumed 14,500 acres and a number of cabins on the north end of the lake.
However, he said, the park had the advantage of learning from the prior year’s Sprague Creek fire, which blazed through nearly 17,000 acres and burned down the Sperry Chalet.
“What we learned in 2017 about what fire does in that cedar hemlock forest type made a huge difference in terms of our ability to reopen [Going-to-the-Sun Road],” he said. “We were confident, from a safety perspective, to get the road open in September.”
Mow noted how Glacier sits in a “sweet spot” for increased fire and other climate-related issues.
“Glacier is one of the low elevation spots in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. That elevation puts us in a very vulnerable position in terms of melting glaciers, our vulnerability to heat and prolong dry periods and I think you see that exhibited in lots of different ways,” he said. “Yes, Glacier has a long history of fire, but not at the frequency we’ve seen in the last three years.”
As to the government shutdown, Mow noted Glacier wasn’t hit as hard as other parks that see bigger visitation numbers through the winter.
The help of the community during the shutdown was the silver lining, he said.
“I have to say the outpouring that we got from the communities was amazing, in terms of support for federal employees, free coffee, free massages, I got lots of calls from people wanting to help pay mortgages or help bridge the needs that federal employees had. It was really heartwarming for our staff to hear that,” he said.
Mow added that the biggest impact to the park during the shutdown was the disruption of about four weeks of school educational programs that weren’t able to come to Glacier.
Looking ahead to this summer in Glacier, Mow pointed to visitation trends for the past few summers, which peaked in 2017, but will likely hold steady in the future.
Visitation for Glacier in 2017 hit a record mark at 3.3 million for the entire year. Last year the park saw visitation decreases of about 10 percent in both June and July, returning to the norm after 2017’s anomaly year but with the caveat of still bringing the issues of overcrowding.
It’s not hard to see the high visitation either. Mow noted that in 2017, both Logan Pass and Bowman Lake closed or restricted access 53 times.
The former was no surprise, but the latter became concerning once he saw how visitors were adapting to a lack of space at the Bowman campground.
“What was amazing to us when we started collecting this data was to see that at Bowman Lake, what happens there is the parking fills and then people start parking in the turnouts, which are really meant for passing, not for parking. Then that becomes a problem with access and getting emergency vehicles in there,” he said.
Part of dealing with continued increased visitation is managing the expectations of visitors — many of which are first-timers at national parks.
Communication has played a pivotal role in this effort, and Mow said getting the message out about traffic and crowding has led to better visitor experiences simply because they know what to expect.
“In trying to address some of those ideas of expectations, we are telling people, whether you follow us on Twitter or other social media, just how busy the park is. And by doing that, people aren’t surprised by how busy it is,” Mow said. “They know it’s going to be busy, and they can’t fault us in the sense that we told them it was going to be that way.”
Likewise, the park has seen success with its collection of online webcams, through which users can see current conditions in different areas of the park before hitting the road.
The webcams, combined with Glacier’s new real-time dashboard, gives visitors all the information they need to know what to expect in the park. The dashboard collects and displays a variety of information in an easy-to-read format, showing vacancy statuses at campgrounds and parking lots, conditions in different areas of the park, and closures and advisories.
The dashboard should be a welcome addition to the information available to visitors, Mow said. Even last year the benefits of the webcams was obvious, he said.
“I think this worked to our advantage during the fires last year. Certainly there were times when the weather was absolutely fine on the east side, but it might have been socked in at Lake McDonald,” he said.
This summer should also see construction begin to wrap up on the new Sperry Chalet, which burnt down during 2017’s Sprague Creek fire. Built in 1913 by the Great Northern Railroad, the chalet is a national historic landmark.
Construction work this year should begin July 1, and Mow said the hope is to have it ready for occupancy by September. The plan is to have the chalet fully open to the public next year.
While the loss of the original chalet was tragic, Mow said he’s proud to replace it with a new building that should stand for decades.
“I think there is a silver lining that comes out of the loss of the Sperry Chalet,” he said. “I think we’ve created a building that’s actually going to be a better building for the next 100 years for that Sperry Chalet experience.”