While some visitors have expressed frustration over the system, officials say it is helping to relieve congestion in the park.
By Justin Franz MONTANA FREE PRESS
COLUMBIA FALLS — In a nondescript hotel conference room Tuesday evening, Glacier National Park Superintendent David Roemer held court with a few dozen locals, answering questions about the 1-million-acre preserve he’s overseen since 2022. While a few asked the perennial question about when construction will finally wrap up on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, most were interested in the park’s contentious ticketed entry system, now in its third year. Throughout the evening, Roemer did as much listening as he did talking.
This week, Glacier Park officials held back-to-back open-house meetings — one on the east side at St. Mary and another on the west side in Columbia Falls — to gather input on the ticketed entry system it has used to manage visitation during the peak summer months. Besides the meetings, the park is also soliciting input online until Sept. 30, and officials said that will help them determine how to tweak the system for 2024 and beyond.
“While this summer is still fresh in everyone’s mind, we want to get feedback to make the experience better in 2024,” Roemer said.
Glacier first introduced the ticketed entry system in 2021 to manage congestion on the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor between West Glacier and St. Mary. The new system came as Glacier was dealing with skyrocketing visitation spurred by the pandemic and people’s desire to get outside. Nearly 3 million people visited the park in 2022, making it one of the most popular national parks in the country.
In order to gain access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, visitors currently need to purchase a $2 ticket good for three days via Recreation.gov about four months in advance of their visit or 24 hours in advance. In 2022, it was expanded to the Polebridge entry, and this year it was expanded to Many Glacier and Two Medicine. Tickets are only required between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., until Sept. 10.
While the ticketed entry system drew ire the first few years, some visitors were especially critical of it this year, particularly the decision to expand it to the Many Glacier and Two Medicine valleys. Among the most vocal detractors has been Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who called for major changes, including reducing the hours a ticket was needed even further. Initially, tickets were needed from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then reduced from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Zinke said he’d like the ticket requirement reduced further from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
This week’s meetings were less public forum and more meet-and-greet with park officials scattered about a conference room ready to take input from locals and encourage them to submit formal comments online.
Among those who came out Tuesday was Chris Hartzell, a wildlife photographer who lives in Columbia Falls and has visited national parks around the world. He said his experiences with the ticketed entry system were “horrible” and suggested that Glacier move to a system similar to the one at Denali National Park. There, people can drive into the park but then have to take shuttle buses to get around.
Michele DeMaris of Kalispell told Roemer that Montana residents should get first dibs on tickets into the park, a statement that got a lot of agreeable nods in the circle of people surrounding the superintendent. The idea has also gained traction online, where more than 6,800 people have signed a petition to let Montanans have first access. But Roemer noted that park regulations do not allow him to give special treatment to anyone, regardless of where they live. DeMaris, however, argued that out-of-towners get special treatment now because if someone has a reservation inside the park, be it for a hotel room, campground or boat tour, they get automatic access.
“The locals are the ones who are not being treated equally because we’re not going to be buying hotel rooms in the park since we live here,” she said.
Roemer said that he appreciated the input people have given him in recent days (so far, the park service has received more than 800 comments from people in 45 states) and that “nothing is off the table” for tweaking the system in 2024. However, he added, the ticketed entry system has helped reduce crowding and congestion in the park.
For example, last summer, the road into the Many Glacier Valley had to be closed 57 times for two to three hours because of overcrowding. This summer, it hasn’t been closed once. And while tickets were quick to sell in July and August, it’s been easier to get them at the start and end of the season. As he stood in the conference room, Roemer cued up the reservation system on his phone and noted that there were well over 700 tickets available for the Going-to-the-Sun Road the following day.
Roemer, who became superintendent in 2022, after the ticketed entry system had already been put in place, can also get an idea of what the park looks like without it. All he has to do is walk out of his office in West Glacier at 3 p.m. and see the line of cars trying to get in after a ticket is no longer required.
“I think the system is working,” he said. “We really want to prevent unplanned and unintended closures in the park.”