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Summer crowds prompt West Glacier to plan for improvements
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Summer crowds prompt West Glacier to plan for improvements

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WEST GLACIER — This town’s stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road sat empty on a recent Friday afternoon. Monica Jungster didn’t expect that to last.

When Glacier National Park completely opens up for the summer, and no wildfire- or pandemic-related restrictions are in effect, “there’s a lot of people for this little village,” Jungster said. West Glacier started receiving visitors by rail more than a century ago. It’s now the park’s most popular entrance. Last year, more than half-a-million vehicles passed through this town of just three square miles and 227 year-round residents.

Jungster, one of those residents, has had a front-row seat to the surge.

“I can't make a left turn on this road very easily” during the summer, she said. “On some heavy traffic days, the cars will be lined up through the village here, under the (railroad) underpass and headed down Highway 2, and it's not safe.”

So far this season, Glacier’s COVID-19 closure has kept the crowds away. But Jungster, who owns the Montana House gift store in the park’s Apgar Village, knows they’ll return. She and her neighbors are now working on a plan for the community’s future.

“The plan came out of a recognition of the many issues that are converging on the doorstep of Glacier National Park,” said Mary McClelland, the West Glacier Community coordinator. In addition to the seasonal crush of travelers, she and her neighbors face the challenge of housing hundreds of seasonal workers, an increasing threat from wildfires, and now, the need to re-open safely during a pandemic.

The unincorporated community is covered by Flathead County Planning and Zoning regulations. Through this new effort — the West Glacier Vision Project — residents, local businesses, nonprofits and public agencies aim to craft a community plan to guide future decision-making.

So far the project has secured a grant from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, held two community meetings in the area, gathered stakeholder input, and developed six visions for the community: preserving the community’s character and sense of place; provide seamless transportation connections; provide sustainable business development; enhance community communications and participation; create a safe and resilient community; support sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities.

The vision document will serve as “the roadmap of how we’re going to support those values,” said Patsy McEntee, a landscape architect and project manager with the Park Service who’s involved with the effort. “There’s also an action plan that we’re currently developing, and some of those objectives and goals we’re currently working on.”

“Any plan is a huge step forward to getting funding” to realize these goals, she continued. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing not just a vision plan but an action plan as well.”

The planning effort, like so much else, has had to shift most of its work online in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public meetings originally planned for June have been tentatively rescheduled for the fall. McEntee said they’re aiming to complete work by the end of the year.

“It has some really good merit,” Darwon Stoneman said of the planning effort. The co-owner and manager of Glacier Raft Co., Stoneman’s hoping something can be done about traffic.

“The biggest problem is (that) there’s only one entrance, and it’s pretty much a bottleneck,” he said. “It would be nice to figure out an alternative … (but) I don’t know if there’s anything you can do.”

Whatever comes out of the plan, Monica Jungster accepts that visitors will still stream through this town on their way to the Crown of the Continent.

“From July 1st to August whatever this is the way it is,” she said. “We're a gateway community to a big national park ... It's not like it used to be and it's not real fun, but that's the reality as long as we have a national park that is attracting that number of people.”

For more information about the West Glacier Community Vision project, visit westglacier.mindmixer.com.

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