The margin of excellence: Glacier National Park Conservancy in its 20th year

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A hiker looks over a high mountain lake in Glacier National Park. The Conservancy’s support of trail crews in Glacier helps keep the backcountry accessible.

Twenty years ago Glacier National Park brass were looking to start a non-profit fundraising arm of the park — a partner for the Park Service.

So some influential folks got together, including then Gov. Marc Racicot and Louis Hill of the Great Northern Railway to form an organization — the Glacier National Park Fund. Congress, in turn, tweaked some tax laws that allowed the National Park Foundation to oversee the effort.

They had their first meeting in October, 1999. The minutes were hand-written, like many things 20 years ago, recalled Jan Metzmaker, the first executive director of the fund.

Like many fledgling organizations, the fund didn’t have a whole lot of money in its coffers in the early years.

But Metzmaker worked with then state Sen. Bob DePratu. DePratu, an influential Republican, was able to get a bill passed that created the first vanity license plate in Montana. The fund not only got a cut of every plate sold, but for awhile there, the state even gave them the names and addresses of the people who bought them. Instant cash and a mailing list, to boot.

“It brought in $200,000 a year and we didn’t have to do anything,” Metzmaker recalled.

Metzmaker left the organization in 2007, but it’s been growing ever since.

Today the Fund, renamed the Glacier National Park Conservancy a few years ago after it merged with the Glacier Natural History Association, supports the Park broadly, almost completely funding entire arms of Glacier’s operation.

Recently the board approved support for 64 park projects at a cost of $2.5 million.

They call it “Parknership,” quipped executive director Doug Mitchell in a recent interview.

The funding supports everything from feeding the crew working on rebuilding Sperry Chalet, to studying Glacier’s iconic mountain goats and its elk population.

It also supports “core” programs annually — projects that, over the years, the Conservancy has made an integral part of its mission. They include the citizen science program, which utilizes public help in support of scientific research, like monitoring the park’s loon and mountain goat populations; the Native American Speaks Program, which brings Native American talks and performances to the park every summer; support for backcountry trails, which includes the Blackfeet Conservation Corps, Youth Corps and other backcountry youth programs; school educational programs, which bring thousands of local school children to the park each year; and the Dark Skies program.

This summer, the park will showcase a new telescope and observatory near the St. Mary visitor center, which was supported by Conservancy dollars. Glacier, with little light pollution, is an International Dark Skies Park.

With increasingly tight federal budgets, the Conservancy provides what Mitchell calls “the margin of excellence.”

The park’s operating budget is about $13 million annually and funding from other sources boosts the total budget to roughly $30 million.

The Conservancy really came to the forefront in 2017 when the Sprague Fire razed the iconic backcountry Sperry Chalet. After a meeting with park Superintendent Jeff Mow, the Conservancy stepped in, took its credit card, went down to the local lumber yard, and bought 100 6-by-6 timbers so crews could immediately stabilize the stone walls of the structure, which were the only part of the chalet left standing.

Mitchell remembers it like it was yesterday.

“They’re $141 apiece,” he said of the beams.

The move likely saved the chalet from collapse and this summer, contractors will complete the restoration of the structure.

While the conversation with the Park Service often looks at the big picture, Mitchell said it’s small projects that often get him excited.

For example, in 2020, the park has asked for funding to make a backcountry campground accessible to everyone.

It’s a simple project that could make a big difference in someone’s life, he noted.

“That’s what gets me up in the morning,” Mitchell said.

For a full list of the Conservancy’s 2019 projects, visit its website at www.glacier.org

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