WEST GLACIER – In the gateway communities of Glacier National Park, residents and business owners liken the annual opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road to the effect of turning on a faucet.
Where once they weren’t, suddenly they are.
The deluge of visitors is scheduled to arrive this week when, barring unforeseen snowstorms or structural catastrophes, all 50 miles of the iconic Sun Road will be cleared of snow to Logan Pass, allowing unfettered access to the park’s wild interior and uppermost alpine reaches, and accommodating upward of a half-million visitors every month through Labor Day.
Just as in years past, the parking lot at the Logan Pass Visitor Center will inevitably fill to capacity by 10 a.m. as a metallic sea of cars and trucks glimmers against the blacktop, lingering until late afternoon. Meanwhile, a shuttle system will deposit throngs of additional visitors at the pass and other trailheads along the corridor while a steady stream of traffic snakes along the highway’s tight and scenic corridor and over the Continental Divide.
Amid the anticipation of another summer tourist season, the administration at Glacier National Park is working to strike a delicate balance between protection and preservation of the park’s natural resources and access to visitors.
But as Glacier’s managers come to grips with the growing number of visitors and absorb data from a nascent and ongoing research study, which was commissioned to inform the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan, there are growing concerns about the park’s capacity to maintain that fine balance.
To address those concerns, park staff has begun developing a detailed plan – a sort of blueprint for the future vision of the corridor – so that the visitor experience remains extraordinary while the pristine environment is protected.
“Glacier is a premier park that provides a great experience, and we simply have to figure out how to continue to provide quality access without messing up that pristine experience,” said Wayne Freimund, a University of Montana professor who teaches graduate courses in Advanced Protected Area Management.
Freimund and a team of students have been systematically monitoring visitor use of Going-to-the-Sun Road since 2005, with a particular emphasis on how parking areas were used before and after the park’s shuttle system was put in place in 2007. They’re also trying to better understanding the relationship between the volume of cars and shuttles traveling the road and the increased use of connecting trails along the corridor.
“We have been watching this place for quite a while,” he said. “We want to be able to give the park a really good understanding of the relationship between road use and trail use so we can start to think of ‘what if’ games as they assess the impacts of use on wildlife and wilderness values.”
Over half of all visitors to Glacier National Park report taking a hike, but for decades the limited number of parking spaces at Logan Pass Visitor Center restricted the flow of visitors into sensitive alpine areas, serving as a governor.
“With the shuttle system, there is less limitation now on how many people can go into the system,” Freimund said.
Using electronic counters that monitor trail use, Freimund and his team have established correlations between increased demand at trailheads and the volume of cars and shuttles traveling the Sun Road corridor.
“Trail use has definitely increased,” he said. “We know that more people are driving to Logan Pass, hiking and then taking the shuttle back to their vehicle. So the shuttle is providing the ability for a loop experience that did not exist before.”
Not only is the shuttle system overloading sensitive alpine areas, but it may be doing so without reducing the amount of vehicle congestion on the Sun Road as was its design, Deputy Superintendent Kym Hall said.
“That’s really the struggle,” Hall said. “With the transit system you can take hundreds if not thousands of additional people a day to a single spot. The demand is there, but we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it. So we’re seeing impacts to our resources like trail widening and an impact on vegetation.”
Park managers don’t have any preconceived notions about the Sun Road Corridor Management Plan, Hall said. Rather, they see it as an opportunity to assess a broad range of issues and then act, rather than apply a piecemeal problem-solving approach.
“As we are honing this management plan we’re asking ourselves, how do we manage the interactions between the public and the wildlife? How do we protect park resources, improve visitor experience and reduce congestion?” Hall said. “They’re tough questions.”
In 2007, after nearly eight decades of avalanches, rock fall and vehicle traffic on the Sun Road, the park began a multi-year rehabilitation project. As park managers commenced the project, they implemented the voluntary shuttle system, which was designed to ease traffic by an estimated 10 percent.
At the time, research showed that 80 percent of park visitors used the Going-to-the-Sun Road, with average peak volumes ranging from 140 to 240 vehicles an hour, and occasionally exceeding 300 vehicles per hour on peak days.
“They were thinking that 10 percent of the cars would come off the road via shuttle use, and that was put in place to relieve the congestion building up behind pilot cars during the first phase of construction,” Hall said. “We’ve actually only seen about 3 to 4 percent of the cars come off the road because of the shuttle system. So we need to explore why we are not taking as many vehicles off the road.”
It’s not that the shuttles are not popular.
Ridership in 2011 was estimated at 156,000 people, said Denise Germann, Glacier Park’s spokeswoman. In 2010, Glacier Park’s centennial year, ridership was approximately 170,000 people. The park is also encountering 2 1/2 times the volume of visitation at popular places like Avalanche Lake and Logan Pass than it did 20 years ago, Germann said.
“None of this information is final, but we do know that the parking lot at Logan Pass still fills up every morning, and that people are getting there by shuttle and private vehicle,” Germann said. “As a result, we are seeing some changes with natural resource damage in alpine areas, especially on some of the more popular trails like the Hidden Lake boardwalk.”
The park has secured $150,000 to have Freimund and his team of UM researchers continue their visitor surveys on the highway and at trailheads throughout the summer. The park also has also obtained federal highway funding for a $1.3 million management plan to be completed over the next three years, and which will help land managers determine the future of the shuttle system, the Sun Road corridor, and the connected trailheads.
Currently, visitors do not pay a user fee for the shuttles. Instead, the $800,000 annual price tag for the transit system is carved out of the park’s entrance fee budget, which is not sustainable as fuel costs rise.
Still, there have been requests for shuttle service outside the shoulder seasons.
Marion Foley, a business woman and member of the Gateway2Glacier business group, has publicly supported expanding the park’s shuttle system so that it runs in the spring and fall. Other area business owners hope the shuttle will travel beyond the park entrances.
Hall said there is no way to fund such an expansion absent other park functions, but the road management plan will address every concern raised.
“We don’t have a predetermined idea of what direction we want to see this plan go,” she said. “We can’t solve this issue on our own, and there will be multiple opportunities for the public to weigh in and help formulate a well-rounded set of alternatives.”
“We don’t want to overburden the corridor and we don’t want to do anything in a vacuum, so honing the management plan will help us visualize a future for the Sun Road corridor,” she said.
Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.