KALISPELL – In the National Park Service, it’s known as “doing the John Muir thing.”
Like the famed naturalist and conservationist who spent time in Alaska in the late 1800s, Park Service employees sometimes steer their careers toward Alaska and its 15 national parks, preserves, monuments and national historical parks, often for short periods.
“I did the John Muir thing, too,” Jeff Mow says. “Except, I never came back.”
Not until a week and a half ago, that is.
After spending 21 of the last 25 years in Alaska – most recently as superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park – Mow has finally returned to the Lower 48.
And he does so as the new superintendent of Glacier National Park, replacing Chas Cartwright, who retired in December.
Mow, 54, takes over at a critical time for Glacier. The park is in the process of producing a corridor management plan that addresses the traffic and congestion on its iconic highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Sequestration has forced cuts in visitor services, and Mow must run a million-acre national park that draws roughly 2 million visitors annually on a $12.5 million budget.
Glacier’s spectacular but creaking hotels are at or nearing their 100th year of operation. What’s more, the concessionaire that ran them for the past 30 years, Glacier Park Inc., has been replaced by a new company after a bidding process.
Last but not least, the glaciers that are Glacier’s namesake are rapidly disappearing in the face of a warmer world.
Mow is no stranger to the latter topic. He’s been a policy analyst on the Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program since 2001.
“In Alaska,” he says, “climate change is in your face. Parks have done climate change workshops co-sponsored by local chambers of commerce. Larger hotels are carrying messaging about it. You can’t ignore it there.
“I’m not sure it’s at that level in the Flathead Valley yet, but I’m sure some people can be very specific about the changes in Glacier they’re seeing because of it.”
Glacier had approximately 150 glaciers when it became a national park in 1910.
That’s down to 25.
Almost all of those, Mow says, are expected to shrink to less than 25 acres – the standard for being considered a glacier – within the next 20 to 30 years.
“As scientists looked at when the Arctic is expected to be ice-free in the summer, all the dates are getting pushed up from what their models showed,” Mow says. “The places we know to be most sensitive to being affected by climate change are areas of high latitude and high altitude, and Glacier is a combination of both.”
It means the old way of approaching management at a national park won’t work anymore, according to Mow.
“A lot of my peers have been ingrained with the idea that national parks are to be vignettes of a primitive America,” he says. “That’s not something we can continue to do. We can’t keep things as they’ve been for the last 100 years when things are changing all around us.”
Mow was also incident commander for the Department of Interior during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He took over after the well was finally capped, and the focus switched from stopping the flow of oil into the water to the damage it was causing on shorelines.
“The Department of Interior had more land affected than the state of Alabama did,” Mow says. “I sat at a table with representatives of the Coast Guard, British Petroleum, and each state affected – Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. We were landowners trying to sort out the cleanup.”
The cleanup of a spill can be more detrimental to an ecosystem than the oil itself, Mow says. Places that wanted beaches opened as quickly as possible for economic reasons “were less interested in maintaining an ecosystem,” he says.
Mow was in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989, too.
“There are similarities between them, but a lot of differences,” he says. “The geography is different, the kind of oil and how it came up was different. Alaska is remote, the gulf is highly populated.”
And the bacteria that can break oil down over time isn’t present in usually chilly Alaska.
“You can go out to isolated places, where the oil got in but where winter storms don’t, and still find puddles of oil that look like they were spilled two or three weeks ago,” Mow says, “and this is 24 years later. It’s like putting oil in a refrigerator.”
Mow was an eighth-grader in his hometown of Los Angeles when his class spent five days in Yosemite National Park with the Yosemite Institute.
“A transformational experience,” says Mow, who came away from it thinking “geology was the coolest thing.”
He never had a chance to take a geology class until he enrolled at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. That also brought him to Montana for the first time, as a geologic assistant with the U.S. Geological Survey during summers.
He worked out of places such as Deer Lodge, Philipsburg and Hamilton over four summers when he was in his early 20s.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Mow saw Glacier National Park for the first time, however, and most of what little he saw of it was on fire. He came out of Alaska on a wildland firefighting crew for the 37,000-acre Red Bench fire.
“I have strong memories, but not a lot of detail on Glacier overall,” Mow says. “We were pretty focused. We spent a lot of our time close to the Canadian border, where we were working with Canadian crews that wanted to keep the fire from spreading into British Columbia.”
He has another Montana connection: His older brother, Dr. Ronald Mow, a urologist, has lived in the state for nearly 30 years, first in Miles City and for the last 20 in Helena.
Ronald was born in India after the Mows’ parents left China in the late 1940s to escape the Communist takeover. They had settled in Los Angeles by the time Jeff was born.
Mow, who returned to California after college to teach at the Yosemite Institute that had sparked his own interest in nature, began his Park Service career as a seasonal ranger at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
“I was at eight duty stations in Alaska,” he says. “Overall, I spent six years in southeast Alaska, eight years above the Arctic Circle living in bush communities, and 8 1/2 years in south-central Alaska on the coast. I’ve seen a fair bit of the state – but I wouldn’t say all of it.”
In addition to Kenai Fjords, Mow was an acting superintendent at Denali National Park.
The four years he wasn’t in Alaska, Mow was superintendent at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, and spent 2001 in Washington, D.C., working with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Office of Legislative Affairs as an NPS Bevinetto Congressional Fellow.
Dealing with tight budgets while running a popular national park “is like playing in a symphony,” he says. “It’s about everyone playing their parts, and being well-coordinated. It’s a big apple, but you take it a bite at a time.”
Mow was barely in his new office when an alleged murder inside the park earlier this summer put Glacier Park in national and international headlines.
Federal authorities alleged Monday that a Kalispell woman shoved her husband of eight days off a cliff, and to his death, inside the park in early July.
Remove the isolated incident, Mow says, and there’s still plenty that’s newsworthy at Glacier.
He’s not only the new superintendent, but the park has that new concessionaire, Xanterra, and Glacier National Park Conservancy has a new CEO, Mark Preiss.
“There are other significant changes, and the biggest challenge is to make them seamless,” Mow says. “I’m aware how important Glacier is to Montanans, to local communities, to local tribes. Everyplace I go, over and over, people tell me about deep associations, multi-generational associations, they have with the park.”
And as for him departing Alaska after more than two decades there to take over here?
“You reach a point in your career,” Mow says, “where there are certain options you don’t pass up. Glacier is one of those.”