Local efforts underway to handle increased tourism
People are flocking to Northwest Montana like never before, and with increases in visitation come additional visitor dollars, traffic and impact in the Flathead Valley and its communities.
Tourism has long been an economic driver for the scenic state of Montana, with Glacier National Park drawing millions from across the country and world each year to visit the national gem and its surrounding communities.
In the last five years, visitation to Glacier has increased from 2.2 million visitors in 2013 to 3.3 million in 2017.
That 1 million-visitor difference comes into perspective when compared with the previous 10 years when visitation consistently hovered between around 1.7 million and 2 million per year.
According to Lauren Alley, spokesperson for Glacier Park, 3 million people also impact the park in several challenging ways, with traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road limiting both public and emergency vehicle access. Preserving park vegetation is another challenge, as is the increase in wildlife encounters.
The dramatic upswing in Glacier visitation can diminish opportunities for solitude for those traveling to seek it. That flies in the face of the original intended purpose of national parks, which combined the protection and preservation of wild lands with public access of an isolated unique environment.
Though visitors pay to enjoy the park, Glacier operates as all national parks do, on fixed federal funding that has remained flat for the last 15 years.
Without the funds to hire more staff to help manage the growing tourist populations, Alley said volunteers and partners have become a critical asset in maintaining infrastructure, amenities, service and order.
Alley said the park continues its focus on deferred maintenance to try to keep up with visitor use and demand, and administration has begun working with area partners to encourage visitors to visit other regional and national public lands.
“These places belong to all of us as the American people and are set aside for generations that follow in our footsteps to enjoy as well,” Alley said. “As people visit them, they become invested in their future and grow that next generation of park stewards.”
Increased tourism has not only impacted the park but also the surrounding communities of the Flathead Valley.
According to the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Tourism at the University of Montana, non-resident visitors spent over 330,000 to put toward new contracts, their sights set on new direct flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, Southern California, Portland and Phoenix.
The Glacier Park International Airport also recently announced plans for expansion to accommodate the growing number of tourists and improve its capability to host larger airlines and provide more flights to accommodate predictions of record-breaking numbers of people flying in and out of Kalispell.
Current growth estimates, according to Ratkowski, indicate that 15 years from now, Glacier Park International could see passenger volumes that rival Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the busiest airport in the state.
Plans for the expanded airport include more space for all aspects of the terminal, including an enlarged upper level capable of accommodating up to seven jet bridges.
“Non-resident visitors contribute a lot, so it’s important that we’re able to have the flights to get them here all year,” Medler said. “I think all the indicators show that visitation is growing and will continue to grow, so it’s good to be prepared for that.”
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.