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Glacier, Conservancy address increasing visitation

December 2, 2018

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 16,000 in 2017 and 112,990 to continue the program with eight paid positions and additional volunteer positions. To date, the organization has released 14.4 million. In 2017, the year visitation at Glacier National Park exceeded 3.3 million people, the base budget was 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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