A park visitor runs at the edge of Lake McDonald in March 2021. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)
The eastern entrances in Glacier National Park will be open this summer, and travelers will be able to drive into the park on either end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, according to the Blackfeet Nation.
Kwebb Galbreath, incident commander for the Blackfeet, said the council voted 9-0 Wednesday to open the eastern entrances of the park, which were closed last year in order to protect elders from the coronavirus.
“They’re exercising their inherent sovereignty, so they are opening the park entrance,” Galbreath said.
He said the reservation has only two active cases, and the Blackfeet Nation has an 89 percent vaccination rate as of Wednesday.
“We’re taking a different look at opening. We are doing it safely and slowly. And if there is an outbreak, (the response) will be narrowly tailored. So if the outbreak is in East Glacier, we’ll focus on that, (and) we’ll divert resources there,” Galbreath said.
With the decision Wednesday, he said travelers will be able to drive into the Two Medicine, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Cut Bank and Chief Mountain access points. Galbreath said the decision took effect immediately; early Wednesday afternoon, workers removed barricades at one road to the park in a brief ceremony following the vote.
Public information officer Jim McNeely said the step of opening the east side for the 2021 season marked a milestone for the tribe, which had closed last year in the face of the unknown to protect the safety and welfare of elders.
“We were at a crossroads,” McNeely said. “We didn’t have a clue what was going to happen a year from (then).”
At the time, no one knew if a vaccine would be available in advance of the 2021 visitor season. McNeely noted 47 people who had underlying health conditions died of causes related to COVID-19, but the tribe was able to keep its elders safe.
In a tweet Wednesday, Glacier National Park said the following: “Winter recreation access to the east side of Glacier National Park will reopen (Thursday, March 18,) at Two Medicine, Cut Bank, and St. Mary. Visitors will be allowed to enter on foot, skis, or snowshoes. Regular winter road closures remain in place for vehicles.”
In anticipation of a busy 2021 season, Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow will hold a virtual community discussion from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, about a possible ticketed entry system and challenges the park and visitors will face. Mow also will discuss park visitation numbers, COVID-19 mitigation, and challenges with seasonal housing.
Glacier public affairs officer Gina Kerzman said park officials hope to make a decision about the ticketed entry system by the end of the month. Last June, Glacier had to close its west entrance 18 times because too many people were in the system, and Kerzman said 2021 looks busy.
“All signs are pointing to there being a high number of visitors coming to the area in the Flathead,” Kerzman said.
For example, airport director Rob Ratkowski said 2019 saw a record number of passengers come through Glacier Park International Airport, and the airport has 50,000 more seats available this summer.
“2019 was a banner year by a wide margin, and we’re lining up to maybe even beat that,” Ratkowski said.
Glacier considered issuing tickets for park entry last summer, but Kerzman said people in the tourism industry and business community said the timing wasn’t right.
“We chose not to implement it last summer,” she said.
This year, with COVID-19 mitigation, construction around and inside the park, and a busy season anticipated, ticketed entry is on the table.
Tickets would be required only for entry onto Going-to-the-Sun Road. (They would not be required for entrances at Two Medicine, Many Glacier or the North Fork.) Members of the Blackfeet Nation and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as well as land owners in the park are exempt.
The park has not finalized a system, but Kerzman said as discussed, tickets would be available 60 days in advance for people planning ahead. A portion of tickets also would be available 48 hours in advance for people taking a more spontaneous trip to the park, such as locals or a family in Seattle hopping to Montana for a long weekend.
The tickets would be available online only and be good for seven days. If you have a park pass, you still would need a ticket and pay $2 for it. People driving into the park before 6 a.m. or after 6 p.m. would not need a ticket, and neither would people who have reservations in the park such as for a campground or Lake McDonald Lodge.
The park has not yet determined the number of tickets it would issue.
Last year, Glacier visitation dropped more than 50 percent overall with east entrances closed. However, October 2020 hit an all time high of 125,544 visitors for the month, and November yielded a 77 percent increase in travelers, 3,444, at the Camas entrance compared to 2019.
The temporary closures last year were due to gridlock and safety concerns, Kerzman said: “If we had a medical emergency … we wouldn’t be able to get people out of there.”
Tourist Influx Anticipated
In 2019, Glacier airport counted 356,000 plane passengers, and this year, it has added two new carriers and four new routes in time for the peak summer season, Ratkowski said. He believes people will fill a significant number of the added 50,000 seats this year.
“I think that there is pent up demand for leisure travel,” Ratkowski said. “I think that domestic leisure travel is really what is the most viable of the airline segment right now. And I think that Montana has been seen as a safe haven and a great place for people to socially distance themselves while still getting out and doing things.”
Additionally, he expects the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines will be a factor that drives travel as well.
At Glacier airport this year, Sun Country Airlines will start seasonal flights to Minneapolis; JetBlue will start seasonal service to New York’s JFK; American Airlines will add seasonal routes to La Guardia and Charlotte, North Carolina; and Allegiant Air will fly to San Diego.
“Summer is our busy season, and we are going into that strong,” Ratkowski said.
A high volume of construction will take place in and around Glacier park in 2021. Kerzman said drivers should expect delays of up to 30 minutes on Camas Road.
U.S. Highway 2 along the southern boundary will be under construction, as will parts of U.S. Highway 89 east and south of St. Mary and the road going into Many Glacier.
New vault toilets will be going in, one at Big Bend and one at St. Mary Falls, Kerzman said. However, she did not expect that construction to stop traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
“Then this fall, we’re going to have a huge public utility project that is going to close Going-to-the-Sun Road from the west side from Apgar all the way to Lake McDonald” starting Oct. 1, Kerzman said.
The park already has been busy this month, with the parking lot at Lake McDonald reportedly filling up on weekends with skiers and hikers.
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