With golden-mantled ground squirrels scampering at her feet, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell extolled the virtues of the National Park Service and the threats places like Glacier National Park face from climate change on the 100th birthday of the Park Service last week.
“I can’t imagine how anyone can deny climate change is going on,” Jewell told the press and the public as she stood on the Hidden Lake Overlook boardwalk Aug. 25, the sun shining on Sperry Glacier in the distance.
Accompanied by a host of park officials and Dan Fagre, the preeminent U.S. Geological Climate Change scientist in the Northern Rockies, Jewell learned and saw firsthand how global warming is impacting the park.
At one point in the hike, Fagre pulled out an historic photograph of a glacier that used to sit at the base of Mount Clements at Logan Pass. The glacier is long gone and today, trees are beginning to grow in what were once glacier moraines.
The loss of glaciers and snow has cascading effects on the ecosystem, Fagre noted. For example, snow is melting sooner in the spring in the Park. On average, there are 26 fewer days of snow cover and that allows trees 26 more days to grow. Meadows that once existed in higher elevations are slowly, but surely, becoming forests. Creatures like mountain goats that once grazed in those meadows now have to migrate through trees, making them susceptible to predation from mountain lions, which can use the trees as cover to attack their prey.
The high country forests are also drying out, making them susceptible to wildfires. It’s only been recently that Glacier has seen wildfires in the high country, where the blazes burn all the way to the ridge tops, Fagre noted.
There are also more subtle effects, he noted. For example, with less snow on average in Glacier, there are fewer avalanches. Avalanche chutes provide a host of foods for grizzly bears. In addition, they draw nutrients from the top of mountains to the streams below, which are important for fish production in the Park.
Jewell’s visit wasn’t all about the dire circumstances of climate change, however.
She recalled author and historian Wallace Stegner’s view of the national parks, who said, the parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
“These lands belong to all Americans,” she said.
But when asked about overcrowding in places like Glacier, Jewell said the Park Service needs to seek a balance.
“It’s always a tradeoff,” she noted. “If people don’t come ... how do we expect them to advocate?”
She said the Service wants people out in the resources. Where they can see impacts like climate change firsthand, while still enjoying the beauty of a place like Glacier.
Asked about more specific issues affecting the region, Jewell said she did not support oil and gas leases in the Badger Two Medicine region immediately south of the Park near Marias Pass.
“We believe it’s an area that should not be developed,” she said.
She said her staff and the administration was working through a legal process with the hope of working with companies that hold the leases in a deal to reimburse them and then terminate them.
The Badger Two Medicine is considered sacred ground by the Blackfeet Tribe and the tribes have been battling energy development there since the 1980s. The Department of Interior recently canceled leases held by the Solonex Co. in the region after the company sued the DOI in an attempt to get a court order that would allow drilling.
Harry Barnes, the Blackfeet Tribal Council Chairman, accompanied the group on the trip, advocating for the Badger Two Medicine.
Mary McClelland, of the Quiet! Glacier coalition, presented Jewell with a petition that had 31,000 signatures advocating the ban on commercial overflights over the Park. The coalition represents 19 different groups, including the Montana Wilderness Association, the National Parks Conservation Association and 17 others who are in favor the ban.
Jewell said managing overflights was a “balancing act” of accessibility and protecting the soundscape.
She noted that in other parks, like the Grand Canyon, flights were required to take a specific route.
Superintendent Jeff Mow noted there’s a broader issue of noise not just from flights, but from motor vehicles. Banning overflights might not be an answer as technology changes. What if, for example, a quiet aircraft was developed, but the Park has banned flights?
The positives of the Park were also front and center in the visit. Mo Stein of the Glacier National Park Conservancy noted the non-profit fundraising arm of the Park made it possible for 8,000 school children to visit Glacier last year and in addition, students who lived too far away to visit the Park were provided the chance to visit public lands and get out into the great outdoors.
Mow noted the Conservancy’s support of Park projects broadens Glacier’s “margin of excellence.”