HELENA - The backcountry of Glacier National Park should be protected as formal wilderness area, the park's superintendent told a business group here Wednesday.
"This would not change how we manage the park," Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright told the Helena Rotary Club at a noon presentation. Cartwright said wilderness designation for the park, which has been pending for 35 years, would not change how officials address fire suppression or manage visitors, who are pouring into the northwest Montana attraction at a rate not seen in 15 years.
At issue is the proposed Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would set aside more than 23 million acres of new wilderness, including 7 million acres in Montana and tracts within Glacier. That legislation, which has been around since 1992, is opposed by Montana's three-member congressional delegation.
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Cartwright said wilderness inside Glacier, and all national parks, is not a new idea. He said park managers were asked decades ago to identify possible wilderness areas within Glacier's boundaries.
"That went to President Nixon 35 years ago," he said. Nixon recommended to the Congress to affirm those designations, but Congress has not acted on that recommendation in almost two generations.
"Thirty-five years is a long time to wait," he said.
His comments were the second time in two days that Cartwright has publicly pushed for park wilderness. He also addressed a pro-wilderness group at Helena's Blackfoot River Brewing Company Tuesday night.
Cartwright told the Helena Rotarians that people almost universally love Glacier Park, but seem hesitant to embrace the idea of enshrining the backcountry as wilderness.
"They say, 'Why bother?' " he said, because the land is already protected. Or they express concern that wilderness designation will bottle up future development or make it harder to fight wildfires.
Federal wilderness areas are set aside to be maintained in their "natural state" as much as possible. National parks, which have roads and hotels, are managed with different ideals in mind. But, Cartwright said, Glacier's backcountry is already managed as de facto wilderness. Formally recognizing that will not change the way people use Glacier Park.
It would also protect the park from the future whims of park superintendents. Park managers have broad discretion over national parks, and wilderness protection would limit the kind of road building and other developments they might consider.
The wilderness bill came up for debate in a House committee this spring. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., spoke against it. Montana's two Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester also oppose the bill.
Cartwright said the Salish and Kootenai tribes, who live on the park's western slope, support the wilderness bill. Representatives from the Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders the east side of the park, did not return phone calls for this story.