Like it's glaciers, park's visitation slowly shrinking
WEST GLACIER - Visitor numbers continue to fall like autumn leaves in Glacier National Park, continuing a trend of downward drift that began in the early 1990s.
August visits dropped 7 percent from last year, with about 37,000 fewer people passing through park gates. Overall visits so far in 1999 are down 6 percent, with nearly 86,000 fewer travelers.
The monthly and annual declines in visits are the latest in what has become a downward spiral in Glacier. Despite a small surge last summer, when visitor numbers actually were up 7 percent, the park has had fewer visitors during much of the decade.
Although reasons for the decline seem obscure at best, park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt has in the past blamed a steep monetary exchange rate for keeping Canadians from coming down for a visit. Construction projects on the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road also have been blamed, as have wet springs, cool summers, late-season floods and any number of other natural factors.
A strong national economy also has caught some of the blame, with analysts guessing that more Americans are taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe. National parks, they say, generally are more popular as affordable getaways when the economy is sluggish.
This year, Vanderbilt has pointed to a late opening of the Sun Road as a contributing factor in the visitation decrease. Last year, the historic highway opened across Logan Pass on May 29, more than two weeks ahead of this year's June 15 opening. Factor in a cold and moody spring and early summer and it is not surprising to see numbers drop.
So far this year, 1,382,427 travelers have entered the park, compared with 1,468,236 at the same time last year. The 6 percent drop also is reflected in the number of overnight campers, is off by 2 percent so far this year.
In 1998, she said, 1,830,944 entered the park, a 7 percent increase over 1,708,877 from 1997. The increase in attendance was a welcome change from the declining numbers of recent years, and may have been the result of a banner year for summer sunshine.
In 1997, she said, visitation dropped 1 percent, which was the smallest decrease seen in recent years. In 1996, visitor numbers dropped 6 percent, and in 1995 plummeted a whopping 15 percent.
When 2.1 million people came through the park in 1994, officials posted a half-percent increase, offering a glimmer of hope after a 2.6 percent decrease in 1993.
The 1994 mark, in fact, was not far below the record of 2.2 million visitors, set in 1983. The 1980s, Vanderbilt has said, generally were years of strong growth in visitor numbers, as drought conditions allowed early opening of the park's centerpiece, Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The 1990s, however, were wetter, colder and snowier. In 1996, the area experienced its wettest year on record, as well as its snowiest.
Despite this summer's warm weather, 3 percent fewer visitors have entered via the park's west entrance, and the eastern St. Mary entrance has posted a 8 percent drop.
Historically, the park has seen many short-term fluctuations in visitor numbers, with an overall general increase throughout the decades. In 1911, the first year Glacier became a national park, about 4,000 people came to see the sights. Numbers quickly climbed - interrupted by world wars, economic hard times, natural disasters and other events - until they reached a peak of more than 2 million in the 1980s.