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New Glacier maps mark change in character

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Two things about Glacier National Park might seem obvious but aren’t.

First, for all its million wild acres of peaks and lakes, Glacier is not legally wilderness.

And second, for all the satellites, traffic counters, lidar scanners and other gizmos monitoring activity in the park, we don’t have a good measuring stick showing how its wild qualities have changed over time.

Yes, we know Glacier’s namesake ice fields have shrunk or ceased to move. And we know visitation numbers have climbed, to the point park staff have imposed a ticketed entry system limiting motorists seeking to cross the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

But thanks to former President Richard Nixon, Glacier Park is a recommended wilderness. Nixon sent a wilderness recommendation to Congress on June 13, 1974, but the bill wasn’t ratified. Ever since, the National Park Service has managed 927,550 acres of Glacier as a potential wilderness area.

Which brings us to that measuring stick and Brad Blickhan, Glacier’s wilderness and wild and scenic river corridor manager.

Blickhan and colleague Jillian McKenna spent much of last year developing a “wilderness character” analysis of the park. The map breaks the park down to thousands of 30x30-meter squares, each with at least 20 kinds of data measurements. Those include features such as presence of invasive weeds or scientific instruments, historic use of chainsaws and opportunity for solitude.

“Wilderness is a diminishing resource throughout the world,” Blickhan said. “Climate change is showing us our impact on the globe is much greater than we thought. It’s never been more important than it is right now to preserve wilderness character and have those places where we escape from modern society, and see how far we can hike, how far we can climb, and have a chance to see grizzly bears. Three million visitors a year are telling us that’s something we need to maintain.”

Just to the south, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and other places designated through the Wilderness Act of 1964 have a requirement to track their wilderness character. Rangers and biologists routinely measure the width of trails, the use of backcountry campsites, the amounts of trash and the expansion of invasive weeds. Glacier Park has not been so systematic about maintaining a history of change on its turf.

“It would be great if I had a baseline of wilderness character set down in 1974, but I don’t have that,” Blickhan said. “But with this, managers who have my job will have something to look at 15 years from now.”

Glacier Park manifested from the National Park Service, which gives it a more complicated mission. In addition to preserving scenic and scientific wonders, parks also have a mandate to provide recreation and public access. Those two goals can tangle, on both physical and policy levels.

Many features, like the Many Glacier Hotel, got placed before the Wilderness Act defined different standards for human impact on pristine landscape. On the other hand, nearly 90 percent of the park has kept its optimal or nearly optimal character. 

Just eight of those 30x30-meter pixel points on Glacier’s wilderness character map are in the “least optimal” category. They are all in places such as the Going-to-the- Sun Road corridor, the road corridors leading into Many Glacier and Two Medicine valleys, and the Inside North Fork Road corridor along the park’s western boundary.

Such collections of hotels, visitor centers and roads would never be permitted in a wilderness area, but are expected in a national park. The challenge, for NPS monitors, is how to best protect the other 90% of Glacier that rests in the “most optimal” or next best categories.

"This gives a manager those data points to show where an action needs to happen," McKenna said. "It can also be a predictive tool, so whenever a big project comes up, we can plug this in and see what threats might come from the project."

For example, outside researchers often want to set up scientific monitoring gear in remote areas. The wilderness character map can show if an area already has too intrusive equipment in place, or guide what kind of operations would have the least noticeable impact.

Former Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright advocated for full wilderness designation in 2009, which would have coincided with the park’s 100th birthday the following year. That effort didn’t succeed, but NPS leadership did start paying more attention to wilderness character beginning in 2012.

McKenna devised ways to log those on an interactive map that will become the baseline for future changes — good or bad — observed at impact sites. In the future, they hope to add more factors, such as the soundscape (how far does car or airplane noise affect the backcountry) and night-sky quality (is light from developed areas interfering with star-gazing?).

Blickhan said backcountry camping use, while growing in popularity, has not had much impact on Glacier’s character.

“The amount of day use — that’s one of our main problems,” Blickhan said. “That’s where you see trail widening, threats to solitude, human waste issues and invasive weeds.”

The weight of character factors can be subjective. Opportunity for solitude is a prime objective for wilderness areas. The Avalanche Lake Trail gets about 1,500 hikers a day during the summer. A Montana resident might find that crowded, while someone from New York City would consider it vacant compared with the crowds in Central Park.

Shoulder warning: Autumn means dicey times in Glacier backcountry

And other forces drive change. Forest fires reshape the landscape. Researchers from Utah State University report that the warming climate could rearrange recreation patterns nationwide, as the Southeast gets too hot to enjoy in summer and the Northwest becomes more attractive.

“Our results suggest there will likely be a greater overall demand for recreational ES on U.S. public lands in the winter and spring, and a lower demand for recreational ES in summer, compared to past visitation patterns,” study lead author Emily Wilkins wrote. “(I)t is possible that certain recreational sites within a region (e.g. higher elevation locations or places with water-based recreation) may still see increased demand in summer.”

The Glacier National Park Conservancy, Glacier’s nonprofit advocacy partner, helped fund the wilderness character mapping project. It also plans to support a staff person next year whose job will be to steward all the character data so park managers can prioritize where to protect values at risk.

“So much of Glacier is in pristine condition,” GNPC Executive Director Doug Mitchell said. “Our mission is to preserve and protect that for future generations. So if you ask: ‘What’s a visitor going to notice through this project?’ the goal is nothing. It’s that it looks the same as it always has. I can’t tell you how giant a victory that is, when people say it looks the same as it’s always looked.”

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