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Glacier Crowding Prompts Discussion On Expanded Shuttle Services

Glacier Park's Logan Pass Visitor Center on a busy summer day.

Glacier National Park’s new plan to address park congestion in the park drew 70 people together last night in the Flathead Valley. The plan calls for more parking lots and shuttles for visitors, but officials don’t think it’s a long-term fix.

Glacier National Park is struggling with its popularity. This year’s visitation numbers could break 3 million, which would make 2019 the second busiest year on record. Trail use has increased by 1,000% in some areas, and the park’s shuttle service and parking lots are overloaded.

Superintendent Jeff Mow said park officials didn’t imagine this growth when the scoping process for the Going-to-the-Sun Road management plan began in 2012.

“Visitation in the park increased 40% in just two years," he said . "That sort of outpaced I think what this plan even would have anticipated at that time. What you will find is the plan is not going to solve all of our problems for the next 20 or 40 years.”

Some in the audience supported one solution in the plan – increased shuttle service. The shuttles are run through a cooperative agreement with Eagle Transit, and use of the service has increased 61% since its start in 2007. Park users sometimes wait more than an hour for a ride.

Eagle Transit is currently in talks with the park about its own plan, according to spokeswoman Lisa Sheppard. The company plans to expand services from nearby communities to the park, basing the change on what Maine’s Acadia National Park offers.

“We are ambitiously calling this the ‘Mountain Climber’ because in Acadia, they have what’s called the ‘Island Explorer’ and it is a one-brand,” she said. “Everybody recognizes it: It’s in the park, out of the park; it’s in the communities, between the communities.”

Eagle Transit wants to overhaul its services outside of Glacier National Park. The goal is to create a larger public transit system around Flathead Valley with connections to the park and Glacier International Airport.

Sheppard said hopes to add three new bus lines throughout the Valley, something she mentioned at Tuesday’s public meeting.

“So that visitors and locals can get around with ease, and [so] they have a lot of opportunity to go and do things both in the park without their personal vehicle, but also outside of the park,” she said.

Sheppard added the proposal is in its infancy.

Eagle Transit’s current routes run primarily in Kalispell, and include a few connection stops in Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The company also operates the existing shuttle service in Glacier.

Eagle Transit is still hashing out a rough cost estimate per season, according to Sheppard. It’s also in preliminary talks with Glacier National Park about funding part of the service.

“In Acadia, it costs about $2.5 million per season to do what they call the ‘Island Explorer,’ and our park visitorship, our communities, are very similar to that,” Sheppard said. “We don’t have an exact figure, but that’s a good place to start the discussion.”

Acadia National Park picks up three-quarters of the cost, with the state, corporate sponsors, municipalities and others picking up the rest. Sheppard says the system would help visitors and locals get around the Flathead Valley and aid the park with its congestion problems.

“It dilutes that visitor presence in the park; eases some of those parking concerns, traffic concerns; certainly reduces personal vehicles in the park,” she said.

Park Superintendent Jeff Mow agreed a reduction in park vehicle numbers would be helpful, but said increased public transit outside of Glacier could add to some of the park’s other congestion issues.

“What we’ve already discovered with the transit system we have now, that it can have unanticipated consequences of just adding to trail numbers, and, as I mentioned last night, trail use and demand is so high that we’re starting to displace the sort of non-hiking visitor from the park,” he explained.

The park’s proposed Going-to-the-Sun Road management plan calls for more shuttle stops and increased service in of the park. Mow said the chances of Eagle Transit’s proposal being incorporated are slim.

“If this integrated system needs a bigger contribution from the park, for activities outside of the park, that’s questionable as to whether we’ll have the funding to come up with it,” he said.

The park currently spends about $700,000 per season on its shuttle system, and it’s unclear how it will pay to expand it. That could leave the onus of funding Eagle Transit’s proposed bus system on the county itself, as well as municipalities, chambers of commerce and potential corporate sponsors.

Glacier’s management plan to address overcrowding is expected sometime next summer.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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