Last spring, when Glacier National Park announced the launch of a pilot program requiring reservations for motorists accessing the Going-to-the-Sun Highway, gateway communities and neighboring public land agencies braced for an upsurge in overflow visits.
“Prior to paid entry, we had already reached the point where we couldn’t meet the summer demand for outdoor recreation, especially in our water parks,” said Jim Williams, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “So, entering the entrance with a ticket, we were quite nervous because we were already full. Here we are in October and it is finally starting to slow down but it has been a very busy summer.
According to the most recent data available, 2.35 million visitors passed through the gates of Glacier in the eight-month period to August 2021, fewer people than those recorded during the same periods in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
But for neighboring public land agencies and stakeholders in access communities, the most telling figure is not the number of visitors who have accessed Glacier, but the number of visitors who have not.
As might be expected, the reservation system designed to reduce congestion inside the park had unintended consequences outside the park, primarily by diverting ticketless visitors to areas that did not require travel. reservation. These included more remote corners of Glacier, as well as nearby sites managed by other land agencies, such as FWP and Flathead National Forest, both of which are less equipped to deal with increases in footfall, traffic and crowds, and who encountered a variety of problems.
Still, new fleet data shows a 12% decrease in the number of vehicles traveling along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Highway during the peak summer months compared to 2019 numbers, “reflecting the The park’s goal of reducing traffic peaks “and contributing to a better overall visitor experience,” said Mary Riddle, head of planning and environmental compliance at Glacier.
Additionally, according to preliminary results from a University of Utah social science study, 70% of visitors surveyed were in favor of some sort of reservation system for the Sun Road Corridor, although Riddle pointed out that the system would be fine-tuned if it was implemented again next summer.
“We’ve learned a lot from this season, including some of the unintended consequences,” Riddle told attendees of a recent webinar hosted by the Montana Access Project. “Our tickets sold out very quickly. We thought we would have tickets available all day and we didn’t. They sold out within the first 10-15 minutes of being online each morning, and some days they sold out much faster than that.
Not only was the online portal through which visitors purchased tickets was overloaded, Riddle said, but Glacier’s page on that website, Recreation.gov, was by far the most visited site of all other National Park units. Service.
“It crashed a lot,” Riddle said. “Accessibility was a concern not only for our elderly and non-tech-savvy visitors, but for all users as the demand and volume of users was enormous. “
Additionally, COVID-19 constraints prevented the park from hiring all of the staff needed to operate a ticket entry system, including staff who operated a ‘visitor filtration’ site just outside. from the West Glacier Entrance Station to monitor visitors who had reservations from those who did. not.
“We ended up needing staff all summer to support the effort and spent over 10,000 hours of working time on the reservation system alone,” said Riddle. “The valleys have become overcrowded and there have been a number of other unintended consequences that we hope to address to improve the visitor experience in the future. “
Options for next year include extending a certain version of the ticket entry system as a pilot program, although permanent implementation requires a longer period of public involvement and analysis. .
“Looking at 2022, it’s pretty clear that our visit is only increasing, so we’re looking to manage access for next year,” Riddle said. “We know it came at a cost to everyone, and it certainly came at a cost to our visitors. So we are trying to see how to mitigate these costs as much as possible. But the issue of managing visits is something we will all be dealing with in the future. We have become a very popular place. We have been found. So now we are trying to figure out how to put the puzzle together. “
Diane Medler, executive director of Explore Kalispell, said the challenges created by Glacier’s ticket entry system were significant, but coordinated messaging and outreach helped ease the pressure. This awareness has worked, as evidenced by the decrease in the diversion rate of visitors at the entrance to West Glacier, which officials set at 15% at the end of the summer, from 20%.
According to Medler, the park’s late notification of its decision to implement the reservation system was particularly problematic, as visitors often plan their trip six months to a year in advance. Visitors were also very confused about park services that exempted them from needing a Sun Road entrance ticket, including visitors staying at the Many Glacier Hotel who thought their accommodation reservations would be used. also entrance ticket for the Sun Road. However, only service reservations along the Sun Road Corridor offered visitors motorized access to the Scenic Drive.
“It was a tough summer and the late notice had a huge impact on our visitors,” Medler said, adding that accommodation capacity was at an all time high throughout the Flathead Valley, with rentals short. term doubling the traditional hosting inventory. Occupancy rates were consistently at 90%, as Glacier Park International Airport added three new carriers and six new destinations over the summer. In July, the airport recorded more than 70,000 boardings, a record number.
“We fully support the park’s efforts to manage the traffic volumes, and for the people who have secured reservations, it has made for a better experience,” Medler said. “But earlier is certainly better to make a decision for next summer.”