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Sun Road reservation plan will stymie economy

by Daily Inter Lake
| March 28, 2021 12:00 AM

After a year of staying close to home Americans are ready to hit the road and soar the friendly skies. The number of passengers at U.S. airports is already surging, and all signs point toward a busy summer tourism season ahead locally. Lodging options are booking up fast and a plethora of new direct flights from coast to coast are set to touch down at Glacier Park International Airport beginning in June.

This is all great news for the region’s tourism-driven economy, but a curve ball could be on the way.

In an effort to control crowds, officials at Glacier National Park are once again mulling a ticked entry system for Going-to-the-Sun Road between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Under the proposed plan, 70% of the tickets to drive the Sun Road would be available up to 60 days in advance, and the other 30% would be available two days in advance. Visitors arriving before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. would not need a ticket.

The reservation system would only apply to the Sun Road corridor, which sees about 5,000 vehicles daily during the peak season.

Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said the reservation system would only be used this summer, noting that the crowding this year will only be exacerbated by road work planned on U.S. 2 through the Canyon area.

Anyone who has visited Glacier during the summer is keenly aware that overcrowding is the top issue facing the park. Some 3 million visitors a year flock to the area to drive the Sun Road, and the crowds are taking a toll on infrastructure and the overall visitor experience. Sitting in traffic, and circling the Avalanche or Logan Pass parking lots jockeying for an open spot isn’t the serene national park experience visitors come here for.

Clearly some type of tactic to mitigate congestion is needed — but a ticketed entry system isn’t the right plan for this summer.

Enacting this system will absolutely stymie visitation to a region that is desperate to recover from the pandemic-induced downturn.

It’s highly unlikely a visitor will book a hotel room or flight here without a reservation to tour the Sun Road. The scenic highway is the main event for visitors, the reason they make the trek to our valley in the first place. Cutting off that attraction essentially cuts off any peripheral dollars that would have flowed through the community.

Last year was rough on local shops and restaurants that depend on summer visitation. Now is not the time to tinker with the area’s No. 1 industry.

It’s also getting late in the game to roll out this reservation system. Plows are already digging in and the Sun Road should be open to the pass within two months or less. If park officials were set on this plan, which they first discussed last July — they should have let area stakeholders know months ago — not a mere eight weeks in advance.

Enacting the plan now unnecessarily puts the entire industry on unstable footing.

Yes, crowding on the Sun Road is an issue that needs attention, and the park’s recently released corridor plan offers a number of viable solutions. Adding park-and-ride lots, expanding the shuttle system (yes, please!) and implementing directional traffic on the busiest trails are all worthy options that would help preserve the Glacier experience.

But Park Service officials should hit the brakes on this hasty plan for a reservation system. The far-reaching economic consequences simply aren’t worth it.