by George Ochenski
One of Montana’s greatest assets is Glacier National Park, where the sheer beauty of the majestic landscape overwhelms visitors with stunning vistas of waterfalls, aquamarine lakes, hanging glaciers on towering peaks and abundant wildlife. Most of us take for granted that Glacier will always remain as we have come to know it. But that assumption is uncertain, at best, and Chas Cartwright, Glacier’s new superintendent, thinks the best way to preserve Glacier’s wild attributes is to give it formal protection as wilderness.
It was a packed crowd last week that filled the upper room of Helena’s Blackfoot River Brewery to listen to Cartwright’s presentation and show support for the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, better known as NREPA. Unlike the wilderness-logging bill currently proposed by Sen. Jon Tester, NREPA would provide full legal wilderness protection to both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.
Some might wonder why we would need an additional layer of protection for our national parks, while others may fear that wilderness designation would change the Glacier we know and love. Cartwright, in his presentation, laid it out straight, both enumerating the reasons why wilderness protection is necessary and allaying fears that existing conditions would be changed.
In his “Top Ten Reasons to Designate Glacier National Park as Wilderness,” Cartwright starts with “Complete Unfinished Business.” It will come as a surprise to most people that President Nixon sent Congress a recommendation to designate most of Glacier as wilderness some 35 years ago. In this day and age of bitter partisan politics, it seems unbelievable that a Republican president would have endorsed more wilderness. Unfortunately, and perhaps because of the Watergate scandal that eventually drove him from office in disgrace, Congress did not take Nixon’s advice.
Some will recall President Reagan and then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who wanted to drill, mine and develop public lands throughout the West. In truth, the George W. Bush administration was little different and perhaps even worse, and went so far as to suggest we sell off huge swathes of public lands to the highest bidders simply to raise revenue.
But drilling and mining aren’t the only threats to national parks. As we’ve seen in the tragedy of Yosemite National Park, beautiful meadows and stunning natural landscapes have been plowed under, paved over and turned into parking lots for new, high-end hotels, restaurants and lodges. Could it happen to Glacier? You bet it could and, sad to say, some day it might. Depending on who is in the White House, whom they appoint as parks overseer and what political or financial motivations they may bring to bear, Glacier’s future could be hanging by a very thin thread indeed. Wilderness designation, which takes an act of Congress, would put those concerns to rest unless Congress could somehow be convinced to remove such designation, which is not likely to happen.
Cartwright also says making most of Glacier formal wilderness would not drastically change the park. First, there’s little argument over the value of Glacier’s backcountry resources, where most of the designation would occur. The pre-existing major roads, such as the awe-inspiring Going to the Sun Highway, would remain in place. The Granite Park and Sperry Chalets would likewise continue to operate and be preserved and maintained since, as Cartwright says, they’re “major historical features” in Glacier. Nor would wilderness designation change the way most visitors enjoy the park. Trail upkeep, fire suppression and other activities would continue and wilderness designation for about 90 percent of the park would not, according to Cartwright, “unduly constrain the autonomy or discretion of future park Superintendents.”
Another surprise for many readers may be Cartwright’s revelation that “there are 60 designated wilderness areas within the National Park System and the National Park Service manages more wilderness acres than any other federal land management agency.” Plus, Waterton Lakes National Park – Canada’s half of the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park – has recently received wilderness designation. Given the interest in coal mining and coal-bed methane extraction directly north of Glacier’s western boundary, Cartwright makes a good point that unless we take steps to provide similar wilderness protection for Glacier, “Canada at times has the perception that we are lecturing them regarding the inappropriateness of mining development in the upper Flathead drainage.”
Finally, Cartwright sums it up succinctly: “It’s the right thing to do.” And so it is. We’re fortunate to have a new superintendent who both recognizes this and is taking concrete steps to inform the general public about why we should take action now to preserve Glacier for future generations.
Which brings us to the often ugly business of modern politics and how to actually “git ‘er done.”
It’s more than a little puzzling why such protection isn’t included in either the Tester bill or the newly announced Rocky Mountain Front proposal. Perhaps, given the non-controversial nature of designating wilderness status for Glacier’s backcountry, there just weren’t any extractive industries with which to collaborate – and collaboration seems to be one of Tester’s main goals.
NREPA, on the other hand, doesn’t worry much about the appearance of collaboration, seeking only to protect vital ecosystems and wildlife corridors on a landscape scale – including the backcountry of both Glacier and Yellowstone.
The political problem, unfortunately, is that none of Montana’s congressional delegation has either the guts or commitment to endorse NREPA. Nonetheless, as Cartwright points out, permanent protection for Glacier is vitally necessary. The seminal question now is who will do it, and the silence is deafening.