As the short days and cold winds signal the end of a sunny and lucrative season for businesses around Glacier National Park, the government's plans for lengthy and disruptive repairs on the Going-to-the-Sun Road have the region's entrepeneurs feeling as desperate as starving grizzly bears.
While some accept that closures and traffic delays are inevitable, most say they are concerned that the repairs could put them out of business.
For this reason, the people who run the hotels, restaurants, gas stations and huckleberry stands from Kalispell to Cut Bank are pleased the park is rethinking its plan to close Glacier's premier attraction to through traffic for four to six years. Some say even an alternate, accelerated schedule, like that proposed as the "prefered alternative" in the U.S. National Park Service's general management plan, would have been long enough to kill off Glacier area businesses.
The rest of the Glacier Park management plan provides broad management guidelines for the next few decades. Expected some time in 1999, the final plan will set policy on the park's developed areas, overflights, winter use, and other topics.
Most business owners agree with park Superintendent Dave Mihalic that some highway repairs-particularly in high areas where the winding road forms a narrow ledge terrifying to flatlanders-are necessary to save the 60-year-old road from crumbling into worse shape.
"We have a goose that lays golden eggs," said Mihalic at the September hearing. "We need to make sure the goose is a healthy goose."
But those for whom the road is lifeblood balk at the notion that it could take up to 10 years to fix the road which took only 17 years (1917-1933) to build in the first place.
Such disruption of the summer tourism industry, they say, is not an option. "If they think a four-year closure will kill us, a 10-year closure will kill us slowly," says Sue Higgins of Two Sisters Cafe on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation just east of the park. "It needs to be done as quickly as possible."
Following months of dire warnings from local business leaders and a public hearing last month with U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, park managers announced in late September that they will issue the final management plan without making a decision on how to fix the road or how long the project would take.
Dale Scott, general manager for the park's main concessionaire, Glacier Park, Inc., cheers the decision. He says that this way park planners can "come up with a solution that will not mean four years of closure."
Republican Rick Hill, Montana's incumbent and only representative to the House, is meanwhile on the verge of securing federal money for an engineering study. The congressman says he hopes to expand the options for planners as they figure out how to fix the legendary road, the only motor route through the park and the easiest access to some of the Northern Rockies' renowned alpine scenery.
Other solutions being considered include shorter closures, with creative use of single-lane access, intensive work at night or during the late fall and early spring when visitors would suffer less inconvenience and prefabrication of materials such as retaining walls.
Business owners meanwhile are delaying captial improvements and are planning for a long downsizing in an already tough scramble for travelling dollars. But they are keeping the heat on the park and Montana's congressional delegation to keep any closure short, to mitigate the effects on business and to let the public know the park is still open by avoiding the C-word-"closure."
According to owner Roscoe Black, the east side's largest Mom-and-Pop operation, St. Mary Lodge, operates at about one-fourth capacity in the early summer. A closed road means $15 to $25 thousand in lost revenue each day, Roscoe says, with ripple effects throughout the season.
Other businesses in West Glacier and St. Mary appear more optimistic that park planners have heard their message. These hopefuls venture the unlikely idea that the park might find a way to do most of the dirty work in just one year. "They'll have to bow to the pressure of the politicians," says restaurantuer John Cunningham of Two Sisters.
For his part, Scott would like to renovate his company's historic hotels and improve their meeting facilities to enable a winter season, even on the park's frosty eastern front, where gnarly weather keeps all but the hardiest away.
Wary of relying on the federal government to solve the problem, business people, county commissioners and chambers of commerce are also mulling over various publicity and marketing tactics, hoping to attract worldwide visitors. Specific notions include marketing U.S. Route 2 as a scenic highway instead of just a detour around the park, and coordinating east side road closures with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial from 2004 to 2006.
Businesses aren't giving up quite yet. As one business owner, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, asserts: "I'm tired of people saying, this is the Apocolypse."
Park officials hold a public hearing on the general management plan in Missoula at Ruby's Reserve Street Inn on Thursday, October 22, at 6:30 p.m.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road must be repaired, but many businesses around Glacier National Park fear that closing the road will stop tourists from visiting.
Photo by Loren Moulton