Glacier National Park can use all the help it can get in managing its more than 1 million acres of stunning landscapes that draws millions of people from all over the world each year.
Fortunately, the national park enjoys partnerships with three key organizations that raise important funding, provide a core of willing volunteers and offer educational programs that create new constituencies.
Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said those partnerships have never been more vital.
Last year, nearly 3 million people visited the national park, some 600,000 more visitors than the year before.
Despite those growing numbers, staffing levels at the park have remained stagnant.
“Our staffing is actually five employees less than what we had in 2002,” Mow said. “You can imagine the sort of responsibilities they have with our number of visitors. We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without having partners to help us.”
Recently, three representatives of those important partnerships sat down at the same table to talk about the work they are accomplishing on the ground.
The Glacier National Park Conservancy is the park’s official fundraising partner. Every year — through sales at the stores it operates and donations — the conservancy provides about $5 million that’s used to pay preservation, education and research projects.
Just this past week, the conservancy’s efforts were broadcast worldwide when video from a pair of new webcams on Logan Pass went live.
While the park purchased the webcams, the conservancy provided $102,000 last year to improve the electrical system and technology at the visitor center at the pass, which helped make the webcam’s operation possible.
That’s just one of the estimated 55 projects the conservancy provided funding for this year.
“All of our organizations are seeing that the federal funding is flat to declining over the last decade and visitation just keeps going up and up,” said the conservancy’s marketing and communication director Amy Dempster. “The need is certainly there.”
The Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates provide the park with a portion of the 1,000 volunteers who offer their time to help make sure that visitors’ needs are met and important maintenance is completed.
Established in 1989, members of the volunteer association help staff visitor centers, work in the backcountry permit offices, complete restoration on historic buildings and do a lot of other work that likely would never get completed without their efforts.
“We do a lot of painting, a lot of painting,” said the Associate’s Cheryl Klein. “We’re the unskilled labor crew … We do have a couple of fellows who have carpentry skills (for historical preservation projects) and we use shovels a lot.”
Klein is particularly proud of the preservation work the organization completed on the second oldest building in the park that’s known as the Matejka Cabin.
“And because I’m the squeaky wheel, we got an interpretive sign there,” she said. “Before that, no one really knew it was there.”
The Glacier Institute is the third nonprofit that works closely with the park to offer education for both young and old.
The institute’s executive director, Joyce Baltz, said that organization focuses on providing education focused solely on science. It’s immersion-style of learning offers adults and young students a chance to experience both the park and surrounding public lands.
Baltz said it can be life-changing.
She has accompanied kids from all over the country on trips to explore both national parks and forest lands, but one of the most memorable came on a field trip with a Whitefish class. As part of the class, the teacher had required his students to write an essay about what they hoped to experience on their trip to Glacier.
The teacher pointed out one student sitting over on a rock to Baltz. He said the young man had written the best essay he had read in his 22 years of bringing students to the park.
“We go to the forest all the time on ATVs, but I wanted to hear the sounds of the forest,” Baltz said the student’s essay read.
“I loved that. Kids here in Montana do a lot of things," she said. "They go hunting, but it’s not always the peace that sticks.
“We ask children that when they go home to tell their parents what they learned because we know when they reiterate the information, it helps them cement it for the future. The goal is they will come back with a school group or their family or some other opportunity. Maybe when the park has a free admission day or maybe they’ll go to the Grand Canyon or some other place.”
Many of the educational opportunities provided by the Glacier Institute are funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
Mow said park officials are very interested in reaching out to underserved populations — like the group of inner-city kids who come from Houston every year or veterans or the park’s tribal neighbors. Those programs can create a ladder that may open the door for some to begin thinking about opportunities of employment in the National Park Service.
All the partnerships the park has developed over the years are important right now, Mow said.
“I think a lot of the critical issues that the park faces, with things like aquatic invasive species, like climate change, or how are we going to deal with the huge numbers that come to the park and our ability to accommodate that. We’re not going to be able to solve those just as Glacier National Park. The only way we are going to be solve them is working through partners in and around the park," he said.
Relationships with local communities has always been strong, said Glacier Park spokesperson Lauren Alley.
“Glacier is a world class destination and it is also a backyard park,” Alley said. “Whether it’s our year-round residents or our summer residences, through these organizations and directed through the park’s volunteer program, they give back a tremendous amount to support their backyard park.”
“In my 30-year career, I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a park where I’ve felt our local community so connected to the park,” he said. “Wherever you go, you hear about somebody’s story about their grandfather who worked on Going-to-the-Sun Road or someone had worked in the hotels.”