While the travel industry as a whole has taken a hit from COVID-19, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people opted to take road trips in 2020 to visit outdoor destinations they deemed relatively safer during a pandemic. A University of Georgia study reported a surge in RV sales and rentals in 2020. Not long after the Sun Road opened, park officials considered utilizing emergency powers granted by the Interior Department to implement a ticketed entry system. Mow ultimately decided against using the system to limit the number of cars in the park because he said it would be hard to implement with the season already in full swing (although he admits such a system would likely have prevented hundreds if not thousands of visitors being turned away at the gate over Labor Day weekend, because they would have known ahead of time whether they could get in). In July, traditionally the park’s busiest month, 453,977 people visited Glacier, down 48.4% from the same month in 2019, according to data from the National Park Service. In August, the first full month the Sun Road was open, visitation was down 40.5% from the same month a year earlier. But those numbers don’t tell the full story. In August, 365,352 people passed through the park’s western entrance in West Glacier, down just 0.2% from the previous year. A little farther north, at the often-overlooked Camas entrance along the North Fork of the Flathead River, 43,842 people entered the park, a 46.7% increase over the previous August. And at the Polebridge entrance, visitation was up 23.4%. “We were really busy, there’s no doubt about it,” said Will Hammerquist, owner of the Polebridge Mercantile. “Having the east side of the park closed was a different dynamic.”
Tourism-dependent businesses say their location on the Blackfeet Nation makes them uniquely vulnerable to the economic impacts of the #Coronavirus. They are asking the state of #Montana for assistance. #COVID19 https://t.co/3WweGhkSos— indianz.com (@indianz) August 19, 2020
Mow said the experiences of 2020 will undoubtedly guide park managers’ decisions in coming years, especially as visitation rebounds. One thing he thinks might help is improved communication between park officials and visitors about acceptable behavior in the park and what roads and parking lots are open or closed at any given time. The latter is particularly challenging because there is limited cell service in the park, but Mow thinks there are creative solutions to be considered. The park is also looking at how it manages the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In 2019, it released a long-awaited corridor management plan that called for permitted parking and expanded shuttle service, among other changes. The park is still considering how it would implement the plan, and lessons from 2020 will likely color those conversations. But ultimately, Mow said, the problems posed by increased visitation in the park and the region as a whole can’t be solved entirely by park managers. “How to deal with these big crowds is an issue that is bigger than the park itself,” he said. “The Flathead Valley and the surrounding areas need to help respond to this.”
“It’s not a risk worth taking. It’s lives versus dollars”: The Blackfeet Nation will keep the eastern entrances to the popular Glacier National Park closed amid rising numbers of #COVID19 cases in #Montana. @GlacierNPS #Coronavirus https://t.co/maMvoJYKSK— indianz.com (@indianz) July 1, 2020
Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter @jfranz88.
This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.
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