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WEST GLACIER – It was by organic and geologic fortuity that the towering mountains of Glacier National Park were hewn during the last ice age, and without regard for the legacy bestowed on its millions of annual visitors, or the suite of wildlife its pristine ecosystem supports.

As Chas Cartwright’s decades-long career in public service draws to a close with him at the helm of Glacier National Park, he isn’t much concerned with the notion of legacy, either.

Cartwright set out as Glacier’s 21st superintendent not to carve out a monument to himself, but to serve as the park’s temporary guardian – to make a lasting contribution so the continent’s crown jewel not only endures another century, but thrives for future generations to enjoy.

“I’ve been driven mostly by my passion for the place and the people,” Cartwright said last week on the afternoon of his retirement party. “The owners of this place, the American people, they love Glacier Park. They are the present and future stewards of this place, and because of that I am confident Glacier will continue to be relevant, and that people will continue to be fierce advocates for this place.”

In his 4 1/2 years as superintendent, Cartwright, 62, squared off against a host of complex issues – the pressures of rising visitation and congestion, the reconstruction of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the protection of natural resources, the threat of invasive species, and the imposing weight of Canadian coal and gold mining interests in the Flathead River Basin.

Charged with striking a balance between preservation and use, Cartwright took on each problem with the park’s best interests in mind, his decisions informed only by his love for the place, and not for the sake of leaving behind a personal legacy.

Unlike many administrators, he experienced much of the park’s 1 million acres of wilderness and wildlife habitat firsthand, hiking nearly all of its 734 miles of trail and climbing its highest peaks whenever possible.

“For all of the things he achieved as an administrator, they were enhanced by his ability to get out and see the park,” said Jack Potter, who worked alongside numerous superintendents during his 41-year career at Glacier National Park before retiring in May 2011. “Many of the achievements during his career were augmented by his dedication to get out in the backcountry and hike. He could not have had so comprehensive an understanding without that dedication to seeing the resources firsthand. He really had a unique perspective that way, and I would say there is no other superintendent who did that.”

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Cartwright’s resume spans more than 40 years of federal service, the last 26 years with the National Park Service, and includes five prior superintendent-ships. Since his appointment as custodian of Glacier in 2008, he has overseen nearly 450 permanent and seasonal employees, and was responsible for an annual budget of nearly $14 million.

In 2010, the park’s centennial year, a record-setting 2.2 million visitors passed through Glacier’s gates. Meanwhile, Cartwright was overseeing one of the biggest reconstruction efforts on the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road while seeking federal wilderness status for the park.

The wilderness designation was stymied in Congress, a major disappointment to Cartwright, but, undeterred, he soon helped usher in another permanent safeguard.

In 2010, Montana and British Columbia officials signed an agreement that made the Flathead River Basin off limits from energy and mineral mining.

For three decades, the North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms Glacier’s western border, had faced pressure from Canadian coal and gold mining interests. Such development would have put Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park’s status as a World Heritage Site at risk, and helped persuade B.C.’s Parliament to take mining off the table.

“I look at successes in the park, and they have all been a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing,” Cartwright said said. “That win on the transboundary Flathead is a good example. It required Montana and B.C. to reach a memorandum of understanding. Nonprofits and scientists and land managers on both sides of the border played key roles. But that was the biggest success that I have ever been involved in during my career.”

The multiyear, $170 million overhaul of the Sun Road, begun in 2006, is still an estimated five years away from completion, and as visitation swells and the park’s infrastructure nears capacity, Cartwright’s successors will be left to contend with a range of issues.

Kym Hall, a 26-year veteran of the National Park Service and Glacier’s deputy superintendent since October 2011, will serve as interim superintendent beginning in January until a permanent successor is named, and Cartwright says she is as competent as anyone to face the inevitable challenges.

A comprehensive management plan for the Sun Road corridor is in its initial stages, and Cartwright says future leaders will have to make major changes to the park’s popular but unsustainable shuttle system, which was devised as a way to mitigate congestion while the road rehabilitation project got underway.

Meant to encourage visitors to park their cars at transit stations in Apgar and St. Mary, the shuttles had the unintended consequence of creating a whole new user group – visitors who use the service to shuttle between trailheads after through hikes – and reduced vehicle traffic by less than 1 percent.

The free shuttle system, which costs the park service $800,000 annually and is supported by $7.50 from visitor entry fees, is also overloading trails at Logan Pass and Avalanche Lake, as well as popular off-trail spots like Mount Oberlin.

“We have major congestion issues on Logan Pass. We have a parking lot full of cars and now we are pulsing thousands more people every day during the busy season up on to the pass,” Cartwright said. “Visitor use on the Highline Trail has increased exponentially, visitor use on the trail to Hidden Lake has gone through the roof, and a major concern is increased visitor use off trail. We have resource protection issues, and I have witnessed changes just in my 4 1/2 years here.”

Future leaders will need to consider charging for the service, he said, or construct other revenue channels.

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Meanwhile, nearly all of the Blackfeet Reservation’s 1.5 million acres are leased for oil and gas exploration, and 18 exploratory wells have been hydraulically fractured on a tract of land directly adjacent to Glacier National Park’s eastern border.

The landscape could soon be bristling with wells and flare stacks, and Cartwright has closely followed the development by the Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp., voicing his concern to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Although the decision is ultimately the tribe’s and Cartwright does not object to responsible development, he expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s piecemeal approach to environmental assessments, and has pressed Anschutz to disclose its intentions for full-field development and submit a broader assessment.

“We have asked for an environmental impact statement or at least an environmental assessment that covers the totality of their existing and remaining exploration program,” he said. “The full range of cumulative impacts needs to be analyzed and addressed before it suddenly explodes on the landscape. That is not acceptable right next to Glacier National Park.”

Degradation to air and water quality, fragmentation of grizzly bear corridors, and a compromised viewshed are all real concerns, he said.

The threat of aquatic invasive species – like lake trout, which have already invaded the park’s lakes, and zebra and quagga mussels, which have not yet entered the state but cannot be eradicated once they arrive – is an issue that “keeps me up at night,” Cartwright said, calling for better collaboration and more proactive action by state agencies.

As chair of the Flathead Basin Commission, which monitors and protects water quality in the Flathead watershed, Cartwright was able to have an influence on efforts to stave off aquatic invasive species, and implemented inspection stations throughout the park.

But none of those issues – not the presence or specter of invasive species, nor the deleterious effects of visitor congestion, nor the challenge of protecting the Crown of the Continent from development – would have seemed so grave from behind a desk. Nor would his successes have been so meaningful if he’d only dedicated his time to navigating the complex channels of bureaucracy.

Instead, Cartwright fostered his love for Glacier National Park and his passion for the outdoors the only way he knew how. By going outside.

“There are so many advantages to getting out in the field. You are more prone to make sound decisions when you really know what is happening on the ground,” he said. “I have been on so many fantastic hikes. I climbed Mount Reynolds with my facility manager. I got to the top of Cleveland, the highest point in the park with my facility manager and my trails foreman. Carving out time to get out in the park is a must, and I will argue forever that it has nothing but benefits.”

“If there is a legacy and I’m looked at as someone who got out and hiked the trails of Glacier, and made good decisions based on that, well, that sounds pretty good to me.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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