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Glacier Plows Hit Asphalt On Going-To-The-Sun Road

Nicky Ouellet
Crews hit pavement along the length of Going-To-The-Sun Road in Glacier National Park May 7.

At the top of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, a giant rotary plow shoots snow 40 feet up into the air before it arcs into a free-falling cascade over the eastern edge of the Continental Divide.

Plow crews hit asphalt along the entire length of Going-To-The-Sun Road Thursday. There’s still no opening date set. Right now, cars are being stopped at the Avalanche Creek parking lot on the West Side and the Jackson Glacier Overlook on the East Side.

As crews finish up work opening the Park’s iconic byway, visitors can already expect traffic lower down due to costly and long-awaited construction projects.

Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for Glacier, says the road work is part of the decade-long Going-To-The-Sun Road Rehabilitation project.

"The work that’s going on right now down in West Glacier is part of that project," she says. "They're actually redoing the roadbed in certain locations. It's a really nice facelift for that section of the road. Of course, other sections have already had that in previous years as part of the decades long rehabilitation project."

Sun Road Rehabilitation began in 2007. It’s the road’s first major overhaul since it opened to cars in the 1930s. The project’s total cost is estimated to fall between $150 and $170 million.

Construction will also be happening less visibly in the Park’s backcountry. The Trump Administration this week announced $12 million to rebuild the scorched dormitory of the Sperry Chalet.

"We heard from public it was really important. People by and large really expressed they wanted to see the Chalet rebuilt," Alley says.

Some have criticized rebuilding Sperry Chalet as a prestige project and questioned why it received funding while Glacier faces a $154 million deferred maintenance backlog for issues like aging electrical, water and sewer lines that serve campgrounds. Alley says deferred maintenance draws from a different funding source than specific projects like the Sperry rebuild, and that public support for the backcountry chalet, as well as from Montana’s elected officials and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was overwhelming.

In the end, maintenance is maintenance. It all needs to get done.

"Similar to your home," Alley says. "It's important to focus on things you can see very visibly and also things that are a little bit more behind the scenes."

Alley says the Park also received federal Burned Area Emergency Response funding to address impacts of the Sprague Fire, which burned about 17,000 acres on the east side of Lake McDonald last fall.

"We're using some of those funds particularly to address some of the 32 miles of trail that were impacted and some of the additional work that needs to happen as part of that recovery," she says.

Up in the high country, road crews spent Thursday digging into the remnants of the Big Drift, which this year reached 40-feet of concrete-like snow.

Credit Nicky Ouellet
Plow crews tackle the infamous Big Drift just east of Logan Pass on Going-To-The-Sun Road in Glacier National Park June 7.

"We were expecting double this, really," says John Lucke, a park facilities manager. "But we only assist in opening the road. Mother Nature really picks the pace."

The Big Drift can reach 70 feet high. But an abnormally warm May rapidly melted this year’s above-average snowpack.

Erich Peitzsch is a physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He said this May was the warmest in the 125 years records have been kept.

"It would have been nice to depend on a healthy snowpack, a well above average snowpack, coming in through the spring and summer," he says. "But again that warm May and not a whole lot of precip allowed that snowpack to disappear pretty quickly. So we don't really have that storage capacity we were maybe going to."

Whatever implications a warm, dry late-spring hold for fire season, the weather did help plow crews reach asphalt sooner than usual. Crews still need to replace log guardrails that are removed each year so avalanches don’t rip them away.

There’s also rockwall barriers to repair, fallen rock to shovel away and streets to be swept. Bikers and hikers can access the full length of the road on weekends, but there’s no timeline for when cars can make the trek.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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