By Don Neubacher And Linda Mazzu
September 24, 2023 12:00 AM
Glacier National Park has been recently criticized for trying to address an overwhelming problem — too many visitors at one time and not enough park staff to fully support the high levels of visitation.
For years, the park has been grappling with the safe accommodation of approximately three million visitors per year, with most of the visitation concentrated in the summer months.
Parking lots at major destinations filled before sunrise, trails and roads were constantly congested, and access to whole areas of the park were frequently restricted to allow time for traffic to clear and ensure there was access for emergency vehicles.
To help address overcrowding on state highways around the park, the state of Montana requested the park implement a reservation system in 2021. This provided an opportunity for the park to implement a pilot reservation system requiring visitors to make a reservation before visiting the park during peak hours in the busy season.
The new system is working. Glacier confirmed that the vehicle reservation system has been modified and tweaked each year since it was first implemented as a pilot, has successfully spread out visitation during peak hours on Going-to-the-Sun Road, resulting in no closures due to overcrowding, better traffic management, and a more enjoyable park experience for visitors. While the reservation system is not a total or perfect solution to handling crowds, it is a step in the right direction. As the park learns from this pilot, it continues to modify the system with feedback from the public.
And while this pilot reservation system is making a difference, there are still additional approaches to explore. This is why it is important to view reservation systems as one tool in a toolbox of solutions to ensure our parks are protected, safe, accessible and enjoyable for all.
Before the pandemic, Glacier, Flathead County and other municipal entities discussed the development of a regional transportation system like the Island Explorer at Acadia National Park or the Yosemite Regional Transportation System. However, bus systems by themselves cannot carry the number of visitors that many of our large parks are receiving daily.
It is estimated that, at certain times, it could take over 120 sprinter vans to carry the daily visitation level across the Going-to-the-Sun Road. And bus systems would need funding.
The issue of overcrowding and congestion is not limited to Glacier. We have seen numerous stories over the past few years about long lines and wait times to enter national parks or hordes of people at popular visitor destinations within the parks.
Several national parks have introduced timed-entry reservation systems to help address overcrowding. Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia National Park, Arches National Park and many others now require reservations for certain times, locations or activities within the park. These solutions are providing for a better visitor experience.
However, Montana’s Congressman Ryan Zinke had an amendment added to the FY 2024 Interior appropriations bill that would defund the ticketed-entry system at Glacier. This action is misguided and may close the door to a possible overall solution.
The Congressman (and former secretary of the Interior) could help by championing action to address the lack of adequate funding for our national parks. This type of action would be a great service to the nation’s treasured parks.
Right now, Zinke’s and his colleagues are doing the opposite. The House of Representatives committee-approved 2024 Interior Appropriations bill would cut park operations by $269 million from the current fiscal year’s appropriation, which would result in the loss of at least one thousand park rangers and other staff nationwide. This budget, if passed, will be a major blow, reducing park capabilities even further.
Simply put, the National Park Service is already chronically underfunded. For years, our national parks have been trying to manage dramatically increasing visitation with inadequate operating budgets. Between FY 2011 and FY 2022, the NPS lost almost 19 percent of its operating staffing capacity while over 30 park units and other authorized sites were added to the system, and annual visitation grew by more than 30 million. In other words, there are now fewer rangers to handle larger crowds and protect more parks. Another budget cut would be untenable.
It is easy to criticize a reservation system and point out the flaws in an imperfect trial system. A better path is to support the park and work constructively with them to create a visitor access system that will protect iconic park resources and provide reasonable and reliable access opportunities for visitors, resulting in a high-quality experience.
We urge our congressional representatives to help Glacier and other national parks across the system by supporting the agency’s ability to solve problems; which means higher funding levels for park operations in the 2024 Interior appropriations bill.
Don Neubacher retired as superintendent at Yosemite National Park after a 36-year career with the National Park Service. Linda Mazzu retired as the superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park after 39 years of federal service. Both are members of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.