Glacier National Park, American Natural Wonder, Faces Deferred Maintenance Challenges
This is the second in a series of four stories profiling national parks. Read our first story on Mesa Verde National Park here, our third story on Chaco Culture National Historical Park here, and our fourth story on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks here.
Covering 1,583 sq. miles of the Rockies, Glacier National Park in Montana is one of America’s natural wonders. Since the turn of the last century, when the park was founded, millions of people have come to see the beautiful Hidden Lake or to drive along Going to the Sun road. For park staff, keeping Glacier and its trails, signs, and buildings ready to receive visitors is a continual effort and one made more difficult when projects must be deferred due to a lack of funds.
“We have infrastructure from all eras,” Lauren Alley, a management assistant at Glacier National Park, told Western Wire. “The park was established in 1910 and we have ranger stations built in 1910 and 1913, the Lake McDonald Lodge was built in 1914, Going to the Sun Road in 1933, and other buildings in the 1960s.”
All of these facilities are in regular use, meaning National Park Service (NPS) staff are hard at work to preserve both the history and natural beauty of the space. Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough money to accomplish all they would like to. According to NPS statistics, Glacier has more than $131 million worth of deferred maintenance.
“Deferred maintenance isn’t always very visible,” Alley said. “Water and waste water are an example of aging infrastructure that is necessary and not seen.”
Because of the cold Montana winters, Glacier park staff must perform significant work to disassemble these systems each spring to locate and repair leaks. The park is also working to rebuild Sperry Chalet, a dormitory used by National Park service staff, which burned during an ember fire storm from the Sprague Fire in August 2017.
“East Park has unique aspects, especially its size and temperature,” she continued. “Something especially challenging is we have a really short season and a lot of visitors.”
In the mountains of Montana, snow can start in September and continue through April. During this time, heavy snow can strain building roofs and plummeting temperatures cause annual concerns about burst pipes. Certain portions of the park are completely unreachable during the winter, leaving staff with a short window of time to complete needed maintenance work, a window that also corresponds with a surge in park visitors.
“Glacier is a highly visited park and we have seen visitor numbers increase by 1 million people between 2012 and 2018,” said Alley. “That means more turning handles on bathroom faucets, more opening and closing doors, and more use of trails, and all of that affects our maintenance plans.”
National Parks are becoming more popular as millennials become interested in camping. Since 2012, the U.S. has seen a 17 percent increase in camping and 53 percent of these new campers are millennials. While the National Parks Service is thrilled that more and more people are interested in seeing America’s natural wonders, this increase does affect their maintenance needs.
Americans want Congress to address deferred maintenance in national parks. According to a poll commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust last week, 82 percent of Americans want Congress to pass legislation that would invest up to $1.3 billion per year over five years to address. The Restore Our Parks Act, currently pending, would dedicate a portion of the fees paid by energy and mineral developers operating on nonpark, non-wilderness federal lands to a fund for park repairs. The bill passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in July with strong bi-partisan support.
Investment in national parks is important for the surrounding area as well. At a field hearing at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, Montana, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) spoke about the economic impact park visitors have for businesses in nearby communities.
“[Park] visitors have a huge economic impact on gateway communities. We know that more than 5.5 million people visited national parks in Montana last year,” said Daines. “That’s five times our state’s population… They spent approximately $633 million in gateway regions which supports more than 9500 jobs and generates over $880 million in the Montana economy alone.”
While tourism in Montana generally peaks during the summer months, Daines said that international visitors are extending the season with trips further into the fall, something that is good for area businesses, but also challenging for park maintenance staff. He is hopeful that Congress will pass the Restore Our Parks Act to
provide Glacier—and other parks around the country—with the repair funding they need to preserve America’s natural beauty and its history.
That’s something that Glacier park staff fully understand.
“We’ve got a tremendous history. It’s a challenge, but it’s important,” said Alley. “You can visit the same place your grandparents saw and it looks the same. That’s an important part of the Parks Service.”