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Going to the Sun Road

A bulldozer works to clear Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road.

COLUMBIA FALLS – Even as sequestration has forced Glacier National Park to change how it does business, it attends to important business on several fronts.

Students at the University of Montana are watching video and not only counting vehicles coming and going from the visitor center parking lot at Logan Pass, but figuring out how long they occupy parking spots, part of data being gathered for a Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor management plan.

Nearby, mountain goats will be collared this summer to help park officials assess how their interactions with tourists are affecting the animals.

Parking at the Apgar Transit Center – constructed in 2007 to help visitors enjoy the Sun Road on buses during a long-running construction to rehabilitate the popular drive – will be expanded this fall. That could help clear the way for the park’s west-side visitor center to move from the converted house it occupies in Apgar Village, where parking has long been an issue.

On the east side, officials are trying to find a permanent solution to recurring problems with the road leading to Many Glacier Hotel – a problem made more difficult because no one has yet figured out why slumping in the road keeps occurring.

In conjunction with Waterton National Park, located next door in Canada, Glacier is looking to reduce light pollution and establish the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve.

And, of course, snowplows are hard at work to get Going-to-the-Sun opened as early as possible, a task in which Mother Nature has been unusually cooperative this spring.

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All this and more was discussed at a pair of community meetings on Glacier’s two sides Wednesday and Thursday.

They were essentially a state-of-the-park address for the public, delivered by acting Superintendent Kym Hall and her administrative team at Teakettle Community Hall in Columbia Falls and Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier.

Hall, the park’s deputy superintendent, has been acting superintendent since the retirement of Chas Cartwright at the end of December. Although it didn’t come up during the discussion, Hall said prior to the Columbia Falls meeting that Glacier could have a new superintendent in place next month.

A name has been forwarded to National Park Service chiefs in Washington, D.C., and awaits their approval, she indicated.

Hall said park officials worked to push cuts in visitor services required because of the congressional sequester into the shoulder seasons at Glacier, but there were some limitations.

Some cuts involving travel, training, overtime, and permanent and seasonal staffing levels, were mandated from Washington, Hall said.

“In 2014, we should have more flexibility to implement them at the park level,” Hall said. Unless Congress further reduces funding, she anticipates Glacier will roll over the same $12.5 million budget into 2014 after having it cut by 5 percent to 6 percent this year.

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Landscape architect Jack Gordon said work on a 3 1/2-mile stretch of Going-to-the-Sun above Avalanche Creek should be completed sometime in August, which will wrap up closures on the west side of the park for a while.

Across the Continental Divide, however, visitors can expect 30- to 40-minute delays as construction starts on a nine-mile stretch between Siyeh Bend and Rising Sun.

Sun Point, meantime, will be closed for the next three years while it serves as a staging area for the road rehabilitation of that stretch.

Jim Foster, chief of facilities, said slumping in the road to Many Glacier continues to stump experts.

“We can’t fix it when we don’t even know what’s wrong,” Foster said, and Hall added the park wants to figure it out so it can avoid making the same repairs over and over.

“It’s not the best use of the taxpayers’ dollar,” she said.

Foster said renovations to Many Glacier Hotel make the drive worthwhile, no matter what. While much of it addressed structural and wiring issues in the north wing, Foster said the dining hall has been renovated to its pre-1945 state, complete with a vaulted ceiling.

“It’s spectacular,” Foster said. “I would encourage you to take a look.”

Remaining work on the lobby, south bridge and “annex 2” has moved to the top of the park service’s priority list and could begin in fall 2015, Foster said.

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The company that will operate Many Glacier Lodge and other park-owned holdings within Glacier for the next 16 years should be known by late August or early September, officials said.

Other than outlining what they need from whoever holds the concessions contract, Glacier officials do not participate in the selection process. Glacier Park Inc. has held the contract for 32 years, and has submitted a bid for the next 16 years as well.

The management team said it assumes more than one bid was received, because a panel made up of Park Service personnel from national and regional headquarters and other national parks was convened to review bids.

Acting Deputy Superintendent Tracy Ammerman said there have been changes with some of the outside groups the park partners with on a range of activities.

The Glacier Institute remains the park’s educational partner, but Glacier National Park Associates has inserted “Volunteer” into its title to better identify itself as a boots-on-the-ground organization that helps with trail work and historic renovation.

And, Ammerman said, in January the Glacier National Park Fund and Glacier Associates, which both raise private funds to help the park with projects, merged to form the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Moving the visitor center from Apgar Village to the transit center within the next two years could be a great place for the conservancy to assist, Hall said.

The move faces two challenges, according to the acting superintendent. One, it’s a big-ticket item, and two, the park service has been moving away from what Hall termed “big, formal centers.”

“The idea is to push people out of the centers and into the parks,” Hall said, but she agreed the move made sense.

“It could be the perfect partnership opportunity,” Hall said.

Hall also stressed that Glacier’s push to become part of an international dark sky reserve would not affect people or businesses outside the park. The main thrust involves retrofitting lighting within the park with shields, or angling the lights differently, to reduce light pollution and enhance stargazing.

Any similar activity on the part of individuals outside Glacier would be voluntary, Hall said, but certainly appreciated.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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