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During the yearlong celebration of Glacier National Park's centennial, it might serve us well to recall the tortured legislative beginnings of that soaring, sparkling place.

Glacier suffered many birth pangs during the legislative route toward designation as a national park. Twenty-eight years earlier its cousin to the south, Yellowstone, had received recognition and status but even that magical geological wonder had to overcome public derision and political opposition prior to its designation by the U.S. Congress.

Here in the Rockies, the passage of laws to protect the landscape has always been difficult. Lines on a map are hard drawn. Fences, intended to create neighborliness, foster initial resentment. Signs that beckon "Welcome" too often read "No Trespass" on the reverse side.

Westerners, some that is, have always been suspicious of surveyors, land dealers, real estate lawyers. Perhaps our caution is understandable. Out this way land is not an abstraction, a graph of a beautiful place, a scenic calendar photo, rather the land is reality upon which we work, live, and play.

Most often, however, our concerns about the act of legislative protection of place have been misplaced, selfish and overwrought.

When, in December 1907, Montana's U.S. Sen. Thomas Carter introduced legislation to authorize Glacier as a national park, there was an outcry of objection from many Montanans - notably from those living closest to the proposed park. Turn-of-the-century mining and timber companies and many of their workers saw Glacier's mountains and valleys as a grab bag for development. The local newspapers - the Interlake, the Kalispell Journal, the Whitefish Pilot and the Kalispell Bee - were opposed to the legislation. They opposed it mostly on economic grounds: loss of timber and mining jobs. The Interlake editorialized, "There may be some local people who favor the park plan, but we have observed only two." The winds of economic passions always blow hard and are difficult to withstand.

Montana Sen. Joe Dixon valiantly managed the park's legislation on its way through the U.S. Senate, adjusting boundaries, settling mining claims and permitting existing summer cottage leases. The bill passed the Senate and was taken up by the House amid continued opposition from many Montanans. The Interlake editorialized its concerns about "throngs of wandering tourists." Although the nearby Great Falls Tribune supported the national park designation, a blizzard of opposing letters from Montanans slowed and, at times, stopped the legislation's progress.

The Tribune persisted, urging the bill's progress with these words, "the country belongs to all the people... citizenship should dictate a policy that would make the country accessible and available to the most people. A national park would undoubtedly serve that end."

Following tortured legislative routes and with the courageous leadership of Montana Congressman Charles Pray, the legislation designating the park was signed into law on May 11, 1910.

It could not have been easy, that century ago, for our Montana congressman and senators to withstand the fierce local opposition and see the legislation into law. Nor has it been easy since.

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Be it proposals to designate wilderness, approve national monuments, or create Wild and Scenic River status, some, usually a minority, can be counted on to protest.

Nothing comes easy in Glacier: not summer; not the dangerous plowing of America's most scenic roadway, the recently rebuilt 52-mile long Going-to-the-Sun highway; and certainly not the courageous political leadership which created that grand national park.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana.

 

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