The National Park Service will grant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) permission to bomb Glacier National Park’s high southern ridges to reduce avalanche danger to its trains, although only under “emergency extenuating circumstances,” according to information released Nov. 3.
While the rail line can also install a weather station, snow depth sensors and avalanche detection devices within park boundaries, the verbose decision—its title alone spans 25 words—did deny any non-emergency explosive use.
BNSF sought greater in-park blasting privileges following a series of slides in 2004 that knocked train cars into the upper Flathead River and closed the track for 29 hours. The railway later withdrew its request, but the agency still finished the environmental impact statement (EIS).
The slide-prone section of track parallels Highway 2 through the steep-walled John F. Stevens Canyon, an area of the park recommended for “Big W” wilderness status and known for its spectacular scenery. The area’s also renowned for its high quality backcountry ski terrain.
Bombing could endanger both skiers and wildlife since a small percentage of explosives usually fails to detonate, a risk the park took into consideration.
“BNSF would be responsible for any unexploded ordnance,” says Mary Riddle, the park’s environmental protection and compliance coordinator, noting that blasting will only be permitted when “human lives or resources are at risk and after all other options have been exercised.”
Instead of blasting, the agency recommends the railroad expand its existing “snowsheds,” or wooden tunnels that protect trains by ushering slides over them.
But while the EIS notes that an additional 5,040 feet of new snowsheds would “decrease the avalanche risk most effectively and provide 24-hour protection,” it would also cost the railway $5 million a year for 50 years.
A BNSF spokesman says no decisions have been made, and that the findings are “under further review.”