HIDDEN LAKE OVERLOOK — One hundred years ago, Congress created the National Park Service and gave the federal agency its increasingly difficult marching orders.
On Thursday, the Secretary of the Interior spent much of that centennial day here in Glacier National Park, hiking a popular trail, traveling the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road in a historic 1930s-era Red Bus, and pondering “how we can fulfill the obligation given to us 100 years ago today, to preserve these resources for future generations.”
Sally Jewell probably already knew part of the answer. It won’t be easy, especially given the Earth’s changing climate, coupled with the increasing popularity of parks such as Glacier.
But, during a three-mile hike at the top of Logan Pass with Glacier’s superintendent, park rangers, scientists and stakeholders, the secretary seemed especially interested in the park’s interactions with people beyond Glacier’s borders.
“National parks cannot survive as islands,” Jewell said. “No place is further along in recognizing that than the Crown of the Continent.”
That expansive area, which crosses an international border, encompasses Glacier and Waterton Lakes parks, and runs from Banff, Alberta, almost to Missoula, can better address the challenges as a whole than as separate pieces trying to solve a puzzle.
“Glacier, at a million acres, isn’t big enough to respond to climate change on its own,” Superintendent Jeff Mow said. To be effective, he added, “work must be done on a broader landscape.”
The Glacier stop is part of a seven-day swing through National Park Service sites in eight states for Jewell, who began the week in New York City, worked her way West to California, and is now headed back East, where she’ll wind up at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine.
That just became a part of the National Park Service this week.
The Glacier visit focused on a warming planet. Jewell called Glacier “the leading edge, maybe even the bleeding edge, for responding to climate change.”
She later flew to Gardiner for Thursday night’s NPS centennial celebration and concert at the Roosevelt Arch — Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance — after winding up her day in Glacier.
The Yellowstone event promised more flair. Jewell was joined there by two governors, the director of the National Park Service, and descendants of President Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen Mather, the NPS’s first director, for a concert by Emmylou Harris and John Prine.
But before that the Interior secretary took in Glacier’s scenery on a the late-summer day, interacting with hikers she met on the Hidden Lake Trail.
Most were surprised to find themselves sharing the pathway and boardwalk with a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
Daryl Sieker of West Linn, Oregon, was celebrating his 75th birthday and upcoming 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren — all making their first trip to Glacier Park — when they encountered Jewell and the entourage on the trail.
“We heard people in the parking lot say they thought the Secretary of the Interior was up here,” he said.
“So we said hello and asked if she’d take a picture with my children,” added daughter Hilary Wirkkala. Soon the whole family was crowding around Jewell, one of dozens of times the former CEO of outdoor retailer REI obliged visitors with similar requests.
“It was an incredible idea our leaders had 100 years ago that brought us the National Park Service,” Jewell said. In other parts of the world, such places would likely be playgrounds for “the wealthy or royalty, but these lands belong to all Americans.”
Jewell even got to see a bear — a black bear, not a grizzly — on her trip back down the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Highway after the hike. The bear was just yards off the pavement, wrestling berries from a bush.
While on the Hidden Lake Trail, Dan Fagre of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Glacier interpretive ranger Tiegen Tomlin, passed on a boatload of facts relating to climate change and Glacier.
Because of its disappearing glaciers, the national park is one of the world’s most visible pieces of evidence that climate change is happening rapidly.
“Humans don’t cause the climate to change,” Tomlin said. “We accelerate it.”
There were 100 square kilometers of ice here when the park was formed, Fagre said, and 15 square kilometers today.
“So 85 percent of the ice is gone,” he said. “The snowpack is in a 50-year decline. And it starts melting 30 days earlier than it used to.”
Any patch of ground in Glacier has, on average, 26 fewer days of snow cover. That’s lengthened the growing season, added fuel for future wildfires, and tripled the height of trees in the alpine zone, encroaching on the habitat of mountain goats that need open spaces.
“Climate change cascades through the whole system,” Fagre said.
Another example: avalanches.
At a stop at Big Bend on the way down Going-to-the-Sun, Fagre told the group they were in “one of the gnarliest parts of the road for avalanches. Avalanches are barreling at full force when they go through here.”
But the snow was once dry. Now it’s wet, he said.
“An avalanche is completely different with water-soaked snow,” Fagre said. “It has the force of moving concrete.”
Glacier is at the forefront of this aspect of climate change too, he said, because the park’s mountain peaks are at a lower elevation than many others in America.
Fagre also warned of the potential coming of major insect outbreaks.
Wintertime temperatures of 25-below-zero are needed for three weeks to control bugs that devastate trees, Fagre said, and Glacier doesn’t get those anymore.
“In British Columbia, 50 million acres of trees have been killed or knocked back,” Fagre said. “That’s 50 Glacier National Parks. If the larvae isn’t killed, the next year you’ve got an Army of insects. The trees are also stressed by the heat in summer. The bugs get on a roll, and keep on rolling.”
That reduces the forest canopy, and affects plant and animal life on the ground.
Some believe that going forward, the pine beetle species could move across Canada and then come down into the southern United States, decimating a major source of timber in this country.
“That’s speculation,” Fagre said, “but it’s one of the things we need to start thinking of.”
Jewell noted that Glacier isn’t the only place where a park’s namesake is in danger.
“Joshua Tree National Park may not have Joshua trees one day,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine places like these without those things.”
“The climate change deniers — I just don’t get it,” Jewell added later. “The science is abundantly clear. If you don’t get on board, well, the rest of us are.”