Park partners with school to build cabins, opportunities

February 28, 2019

Sometime in 2020 the Polebridge Ranger Station stands to gain a new residential cabin constructed by students at Columbia Falls High School.

The first cabin could be one of many built for Glacier National Park in the years to come by building-trades students at the school.

At least that’s the vision of a recently announced partnership that includes Glacier and the Columbia Falls Schools District, with support from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Some summer park workers destined to live at the Polebridge station will reap the rewards of the students’ labors by settling into a new 18-by-26-foot, two-bedroom cabin that will be trucked up the North Fork Road at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The deteriorated cabin it will replace is rife with code violations and slated for removal, according to Glacier National Park.

The cliche observation would suggest the partnership is a win-win for both the park, which is short on housing for seasonal staff, and for high school students.

The latter could learn a host of practical and potentially marketable skills - ranging from computer-assisted design to hands-on construction techniques, the park said.

Primary funding will come from the National Park Service. The Polebridge cabin project’s budget is $269,000, a price that includes removal of the existing cabin.

Funding will pay for building materials, special tools and contracting with a transportation company to move the finished cabin to the site, according to Glacier National Park.

In addition, the park service will hire an employee with residential construction skills who will work with students and faculty at the school “to enhance life and career skill opportunities” for the students.

Students who want to participate will have to earn a spot. They’ll be required to submit resumes and be “hired.” The school will consider adding other coursework to the program to help prepare students for careers in engineering, construction management and business leadership.

Discussion about the cabin building partnership began last summer. Funding awarded in late 2018 will allow school staff to plan for adding the program during the 2019-2020 school year.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy, the park’s philanthropic partner, said previous donations have helped fund two other partnerships with Columbia Falls High School. They have included a winter intern in the school’s cooperative greenhouse, who helps grow native plants used in Glacier National Park restoration projects, and funding that helped expand GIS capabilities for use in the school’s field ecology program.

Steve Bradshaw, superintendent of schools in Columbia Falls, expressed support for the latest partnership.

“This is a great opportunity for students in the construction area,” Bradshaw said.

Principal Scott Gaiser offered a similar observation, noting the partnership will provide a path to internships and “a springboard to real employment” for building-trades students at the high school.

He said Columbia Falls High School plans to seek private donations to construct an unheated building that could provide cover for students and the structure or structures under construction.

Gaiser said the building could help students stay safe and transition quickly to work mode from other classes and allow construction to proceed even in the midst of harsh winter weather.

“We’ll have to find donors,” he said.

The Associated General Contractors of America organization has said that workforce shortages in the construction sector “are limiting the full economic benefits of robust demand for construction workers in many parts of the country.”

The association has urged federal officials to increase funding for career and technical education and to enact comprehensive immigration reform that could allow more people to work legally in construction in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park, and Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said they hope the partnership with Columbia Falls High School could also inspire young people to be interested in park service careers or in work as national park stewards.

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