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Park Service's 100th Birthday Marked By Climate Change, Tight Funding

Dan Fagre, a climate change researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, shows US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a photo of Glacier in 1914
Nicky Ouellet
Dan Fagre, a climate change researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, shows Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell a photo of Glacier in 1914.

Thursday was a big day in Glacier National Park.

The Park Service turned 100, and to celebrate, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a pilgrimage of sorts up Going to the Sun Road to see the park’s waning namesakes. She called it, "an incredible reminder of why the NPS was America's best idea."

Along the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook from Logan Pass, Secretary Jewell wished happy birthday to other hikers and commended Glacier for its collaborative work with tribes, Canadian parks, classrooms and nonprofits.

"National Parks cannot survive as islands or postage stamps in a broader ecosystem," she said, "and there's no place farther along in America than the crown of the continent ecosystem region for making the case for that and it's been decades in the making."

She also heared about some of the challenges Glacier National Park faces in the next 100 years. For Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, the biggest challenge is climate change.

"Glacier's at the forefront," Mow said. "You could call it the leading edge, maybe even the bleeding edge, of impacts to the park."

The loss of Glacier Park’s namesake is, perhaps, the most visible and drastic impact of a warming planet.

Dan Fagre is a climate change researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey. Standing on the Hidden Lake boardwalk trail under Clements Mountain, he holds up a black and white photo of a hanging glacier on the side of the mountain.

"So this is 1914, when the park was already 4 years old," he said, pointing to the photo, "and by the '30s, when this area was developed, the road completed, it was already much smaller and sometime in the '40s and '50s it disappeared entirely."

Fagre says the park could lose all of its remaining 25 glaciers over the next several decades, and this would cause a huge shift for plants and wildlife. With no glaciers, trees would grow in places they’ve never grown before, pushing bighorn sheep and mountain goats into areas with more predators.

"One change in the ecosystem has cascading changes throughout the rest of the ecosystem," he said.

Another challenge facing the parks is funding. Budgets are so constrained that parks are now accepting corporate sponsorships.

Both of Montana’s senators say Congress can do better in supporting the nation’s parks.

On Thursday Senator Jon Tester celebrated the Park’s centennial in Yellowstone, while Senator Steve Daines sent out birthday selfies and Snapchats from Glacier.

"We love our parks. The challenge is that we have funding restraints, so we need to address the funding issues in Congress," said Daines.

Daines says Congress needs to make funding the parks a priority and find a reliable, consistent funding mechanism for protecting the parks.

He attended an evening program in Apgar Village, highlighting one way the Park Service is moving into its second century: using social media to reach a more diverse and younger audience.

About 200 people showed up for the park’s Instameet, where users of the social media platform Instagram met in real life. There was cake, courtesy of the Glacier Park Conservancy, and people sang happy birthday to the Park Service.

And, of course, took a massive group photo.

The parks’ centennial celebrations were exactly the exclamation point you’d want to mark the end of a century of preservation. But parks aren’t time capsules - they’re part of a modern and changing world. When the party’s over, the Park Service, Congress, tribes, states and people will have to figure out how to carry these national treasures through the next 100 years.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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