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Glacier digging out from shutdown, but questions, worries linger

Glacier digging out from shutdown, but questions, worries linger

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WEST GLACIER — Several inches of snow, a month’s worth of mail and an idled renovation project greeted staff returning to Glacier National Park’s headquarters this week.

“They all hit it pretty hard starting Saturday,” park spokesperson Lauren Alley said of the plowing crews. The headquarters parking lot had been cleared by Tuesday morning, along with the small knot of roads that stay open year-round on Glacier’s west side. Four baskets of mail and hundreds of unread emails were being tackled by some workers, while others resumed a renovation of the front lobby.

Plenty of other tasks awaited them elsewhere: taking down the warning signs that had been taped up when appropriations lapsed; unlocking Apgar Visitor Center’s restrooms, shoveling its sidewalks and changing out the month-old weather forecasts on its bulletin board.

It was a light workload compared to that at some other national parks, which saw illicit off-roading, piles of trash and destruction of Joshua trees during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The lapse in funds furloughed about 80 percent of Glacier’s roughly 100 year-round workers, and forced others to only work part time. But winter had already come close to closing the park. Summer's flood of visitors — around a million last July alone — shrinks to a trickle of about 10,000 to 12,000 in January, and the few park facilities that stay open sharply cut their hours.

“I haven’t had any facilities impacts reported,” Alley said. Despite reports of prohibited dog-walking and drone-flying during the shutdown, she said that “by and large, the local community was really concerned about the park.”

Seth Hahn of Kalispell had been visiting for three weeks and barely saw any difference. “The one thing I did notice was that the (park’s) Instagram feed was down,” along with its webcams and condition updates. He said the stream of local visitors had kept the road to Lake McDonald Lodge passable. Standing with his siblings Dylan and Katie in its parking lot, next to a dozen parked cars, he said that “this is probably the most crowded I’ve seen it.”

Alley said that most “visitor-facing services” — like restrooms, visitor centers, school programs and snowshoe walks — should return to normal this week. Another possible shutdown looms on Feb. 15, but for now, the park is focused on reopening.

But even if this monthlong pause in operations is the only shutdown, it could echo into summer.

Winter is when the park prepares for the millions of tourists who arrive from June through September. It’s when the park starts the hiring process for 400 to 500 seasonal employees, and determines which maintenance projects will be funded once the snow melts.

It’s too soon to tell how those have been affected by the shutdown. “This week and next week is going to be all about assessing and reorganizing the 2019 work plan,” Alley said.

Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, wrote in an email that he had “nothing to report” on the Sperry Chalet rebuilding effort, but a public meeting on the project that was delayed because of the shutdown is being rescheduled.

Last week, the Flathead Beacon reported that park concessionaire Xanterra needed to delay plumbing upgrades to the Many Glacier Hotel due to a holdup with paperwork. But Marc Ducharme, general manager for the company’s Glacier National Park Lodges, wrote that “other than a few clerical delays, we haven’t felt much.”

Winter isn’t just a time for park managers to plan projects; it’s also when visitors plan their trips. “We missed the full month of the busiest booking time,” said Teagan Tomlin, a visitor services assistant in Glacier. Campground reservations open six months in advance, but the site used for booking was inoperable throughout the shutdown, keeping visitors from making reservations for late June or July.

And park staff weren’t on hand to guide decisions. Prospective visitors often “don’t know the specifics of sites, so they’ll call us,” said Tomlin, who logged more than 300 calls last January.

Some of those callers instead sought information from nearby Glacier Guides and Montana Raft, based near the park’s west entrance. Emailers “were definitely curious about what was happening in the park,” said Courtney Stone, the company’s marketing director, who added that they field plenty of questions even when the government is open.

For this and other local businesses sustained by Glacier tourist traffic, the winter months are slow, but crucial. “It’s just time to start planning for the summer,” said owner and manager Denny Gignoux. “That typically happens end of December, beginning of January.”

Glacier Guides holds a hiking concession and a biking conditional-use agreement with Glacier, and Forest Service permits for rafting and fishing trips on the Flathead and Smith rivers. During winter, Gignoux and his co-workers are busy preparing the paperwork for those trips, hiring roughly 100 seasonal staff to lead them, and watching the Going-to-the-Sun Road plowing and other park activities that make mass visitation possible. From a tour operator’s perspective, “we’re not far off from spring, so we need to get this ball rolling now.”

Despite the monthlong shutdown, Gignoux doesn’t anticipate any staffing changes, and foresees another busy summer ahead. Now, he wants to make sure that another shutdown won’t get in the way.

“This is akin to a natural disaster,” he said of the funding freeze. “We need to have a plan in place to support the treasures of our state so that we’re not held hostage by political turmoil.”

He noted that Arizona paid to keep Grand Canyon National Park open during the most recent government shutdown. Utah and New York State also funded some of their National Park Service-run attractions.

Gignoux wants Montana to do likewise if another shutdown hits — especially during the vital summer months — and said he had already met with Gov. Steve Bullock to discuss a possible contingency plan. The governor’s office did not reply to a request to confirm this meeting or provide further information.

From wildfires to grizzly bears, Glacier’s neighbors have long had to live with hazards, and Gignoux now counts today’s fraught politics among them.

“There’s always stuff that happens, and it’s just one more thing,” he reflected. “We’re like farming. We’re dependent on weather, we’re dependent on politics, we’re dependent on people’s sentiment.”

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