Glacier, Conservancy address increasing visitation

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Fifteen hikers within a span of roughly two weeks during the summer of 2017 required emergency “carry-outs” from the popular Loop Trail in Glacier National Park.

Many park visitors had tackled the hike ill-prepared for the impacts of thirst and unseasonable heat along a trail where shade in some sections has been eliminated by wildfire.

Rangers and other personnel responded during the 2018 season to 872 “wildlife jams” or similar incidents. Some 13 percent of all law enforcement activity in Glacier this season was wildlife-related.

There were 76 search-and-rescue operations and 157 medical calls.

Park visitation has increased. Federal funding has not. And Glacier seems to be attracting more visitors who lack experience hiking in challenging terrain and unpredictable weather.

Two approaches at the park for handling escalating visitation without increased federal funding include Preventive Search and Rescue and “Wildlife Jammers.”

In Glacier National Park, the staff members who focus on visitor and wildlife safety emphasize that they strive to ensure people have a positive experience visiting the Crown of the Continent.

That complex mission can require diplomacy and innovation, especially as crowding amps up visitor stress.

“We are looking at some creative ways to build capacity,” said Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for the park.

At the same time, Glacier must adapt to changes in the types of visitors frequenting the park, observed Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, based in Columbia Falls and the park’s philanthropic partner.

“Glacier has historically been thought of as a place where more experienced hikers go, but in recent years the park’s hiker demographic has changed and made hiker education a more significant part of ensuring a safe experience for visitors and park personnel alike,” Mitchell said.

Volunteers at Logan Pass responded after the flurry of heat-related incidents on the Loop Trail by offering visitors information about preparation for hikes. And the “carry outs” declined.

Education about adequate water, sunscreen, wearing a hat and other appropriate apparel on days of dry heat can be a simple, but effective piece of a Preventive Search and Rescue program, said Glacier’s Chief Ranger Paul Austin.

The program’s mission is to encourage visitors to be prepared, self-sufficient and responsible for their own safety, Austin said.

Two iconic national parks that have successfully implemented Preventive Search and Rescue programs are Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Austin served as a ranger at each.

At Grand Canyon, the program was established in 1997 “with the mission of reducing visitor injury, illness and death during the hottest summer months.”

Yosemite’s program “focuses on educating visitors to use backcountry common sense, swift-water safety and public enjoyment of waterfalls from a distance.”

Glacier National Park Conservancy has approved a grant of $67,750 for the 2019 Preventive Search and Rescue program to fund paid positions and add volunteers to “interact with visitors to prevent common problems before they begin.” Mitchell said 2019 grant funds are released by the conservancy board periodically as additional money is raised.

The conservancy notes that “data from other parks with similar programs shows that just making sure hikers have proper gear, sufficient water, and are aware of the adventure on which they are embarking can decrease search-and-rescue calls by as much as 45 percent.”

Signage plays a role.

A sign at the trailhead to Sperry Chalet warns that wildfires have reduced shade and that the trail will be much hotter than in years past and hikers should take heed.

Meanwhile, this season, like many others, more than a few visitors intent on capturing a wildlife photo abandoned their vehicles in the smack-dab middle of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, doors wide open.

A “bear jam” of years past can’t be compared to the modern jam that occurs in the context of annual visitation hovering around 3 million people, Austin said.

“Ten or 15 years ago, a ‘bear jam’ might just affect 10 or 15 people,” he said. “Now, it’s causing a huge gridlock.”

And tying up rangers who might be needed elsewhere. At the peak of the season, Glacier has about 50 law enforcement rangers.

“Does a law enforcement person have to be the person handling wildlife interactions or can another person be trained up to do that?” Austin said.

The “Wildlife Jammers” program was created toward this end. Grants of $16,000 in 2017 and $32,500 in 2018 from the Glacier National Park Conservancy paid for training and hiring of paid staff and volunteers to respond to wildlife jams, with an aim of educating visitors about keeping a safe distance from wildlife and of politely moving motorists along.

The conservancy has approved for 2019 a grant of $112,990 to continue the program with eight paid positions and additional volunteer positions. To date, the organization has released $68,000 of that amount and it will release additional funds for this and other 2019 grant projects as fundraising progresses, Mitchell said.

Austin acknowledged that some visitors obsessed with getting the perfect grizzly photo might ignore someone not equipped with a badge and gun.

“They’re not going to be working independently,” he said, noting a ranger can be summoned when necessary.

There are times when a crowded park requires trained law enforcement intervention, he said, such as when a fist fight breaks out over a Logan Pass parking spot or a domestic dispute erupts in a campground.

The “Wildlife Jammers” program intends to help Glacier do more with less.

In fiscal 2010, Glacier National Park’s base budget was about $14.4 million. In 2017, the year visitation at Glacier National Park exceeded 3.3 million people, the base budget was $13.86 million.

For the current fiscal year, the base budget is about $14.07 million. That figure is reduced by about $200,000 to help fund supporting regional offices and offices in Washington, D.C.

John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said funding for national parks is a major concern for the association.

“The budget for the National Park Service has been inadequate for so long, and visitation has so consistently been increasing, that we’re worried about the long-term preservation of our parks and the opportunities for visitors to enjoy them,” Garder said.

He said funding for national parks remains below what it was in 2010, even after recent congressional increases.

“Those increases were very helpful, but lawmakers need to better prioritize national treasures like Glacier, for the sake of both our heritage and the local economies that depend on their well-being,” Garder said.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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