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Zinke-Sperry

From left: Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke discuss the future of Sperry Chalet, along with other national park issues, during a wide-ranging press conference on Saturday in Columbia Falls.

EVE BYRON, Missoulian

COLUMBIA FALLS — Rebuilding Sperry Chalet “as expeditiously as they can,” under budget and ahead of schedule, is a commitment made by Secretary of State Ryan Zinke Saturday after a meeting with Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow and Doug Mitchell, executive director of Glacier National Park Conservancy.

As part of a wide-ranging press conference here Saturday, Zinke said public comments overwhelmingly support rebuilding the popular backcountry chalet’s dormitory, burned in last summer's Sprague Fire, as close as possible to its original state while making some upgrades. He proposes using a mix of public and private dollars to complete the work, adding that he is prepared to commit “whatever it takes” in federal funding to restore the structure.

Also Saturday, Zinke stuck firm with his proposal to increase entrance fees — doubling or tripling them from $25 or $30 to $70 for a weekly private, non-commercial vehicle pass — to 17 highly visited national parks, including Yellowstone and Glacier, during peak seasons.

Zinke noted that Interior also wants to address the $11.7 billion backlog of infrastructure maintenance and improvements for national parks, and pointed to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that includes a new Public Lands Infrastructure Plan. It calls for raising money from increased energy leases for gas, coal, solar, wind and thermal development on public lands; along with aiding parks, the funds would benefit national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools. Zinke said bills working their way through Congress have bipartisan support for the measure.

“If we’re going to develop wealth from all the energy sources … they should contribute to our public lands,” he said.

And, when asked about a report that Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of insular areas at Interior, disputed a statement by the U.S. Geological Survey that “The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966,” Zinke said he knows firsthand how rapidly glaciers are melting.

“There’s no doubt that the glaciers are becoming smaller,” said Zinke, who grew up in Whitefish and spoke of eating lunch with his family on a receding glacier. “I would say they have been significantly receding for a long time.”

As for Sperry, he said that “the goal is to enclose it by the time the snow flies,” Zinke said. “Everyone cares about Sperry; this is a national movement. I’ve always liked Sperry the way she was — not necessarily the paper-thin walls — but historically it was part of a system; you couldn’t hike from point A to B without laying over, and the chalet was an important part of that.

“We want to make sure we reignite the grandeur it was, but maybe with better materials.”

The Sperry Complex is the largest collection of Swiss chalet-style buildings in the United States. The stone and timber dormitory, which could accommodate 50 overnight guests and was built in 1914, burned during an “ember storm” from the Sprague fire on Aug. 31, 2017. Only the dorm’s stone walls and chimneys remain standing. The nearby dining hall was lightly singed, and only needs some minor repairs.

Mitchell’s group raised more than $200,000 in private donations from people in all 50 states for the dormitory and spent $120,000 last year to stabilize the walls and chimneys to get them through the winter.

“Each of us has a piece,” Zinke said. “Sometimes the conservancy is the best partner because they can do things faster. The park service will make sure we go through the process, and Interior will make sure the money is in my budget and we prioritize that.”

Earlier this month, Mow released an Environmental Assessment outlining four options for the future of Sperry Chalet, from rebuilding it as similar as possible to the historic structure, to only stabilizing the burned walls and posting explanatory signs, housing guests in removable wall tents or yurts.

While all the options remain on the table, Mow said few people, if any, support the concept involving tents or yurts.

“Far and away, what we’ve heard from the public to date is let’s try to keep what we had for the last 100 years … they want to have that experience,” Mow said.

Mitchell is excited for the conservancy to be part of the effort.

“We want to build something that 100 years from now, people will look back and be proud of what took place,” he said.

Zinke also said that while he’s not advocating for commercial logging to thin trees in national parks — which he said is illegal — as part of the effort to lessen the intensity of wildfires, he would like to see some vistas restored and trees removed without cost to the federal agency.

“We do mechanical extraction in Yosemite and Sequoia, and prescribed burns,” Zinke said. “That’s why we rely on superintendents to look at what’s important, not just on park lands but also BLM. I don’t think anyone wants to see parks burn down, and there are viewsheds we want to restore.”

Zinke also spoke about his frustration with Congress not moving on nominees for top positions in his administration, including directors of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the USGS and Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others. He noted that one of his predecessors, Stewart Udall, had those positions filled in just a few weeks.

“I have been in office a year and don’t have key directors,” Zinke said. “At least we have dedicated people holding down the fort, providing some stability.”

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