'It's kind of a scary time': Glacier-area businesses await reopening
WEST GLACIER – Normally, Montana House is the only business in Glacier National Park’s Apgar Village that is open year-round. But these are not normal times.
“This would be, for the early season, a very busy weekend,” said Monica Jungster, owner of the craft shop. Friday brought temperatures in the 70s, plenty of sunshine and just a wisp of breeze to Glacier National Park’s western gateway.
But with Glacier still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the only ones there to enjoy it were a handful of maintenance staff and Jungster, whose parents founded Montana House in 1960.
“This is my 60th year. I did not anticipate doing this,” she said.
Authorities closed Glacier in March, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s office aims to start reopening some of its roads and facilities the second week in June. A summer surge of tourists keeps outfitters, stores and hotels in and around the park afloat.
These businesses have faced a wave of cancellations and other challenges in recent months, and their owners have their share of frustrations and concerns. About a dozen of them brought theirs to West Glacier Friday morning, where Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines hosted a roundtable discussion.
Jungster was worried about her employees' health. “The Park Service, what are they going to do for the private people in Apgar?” she asked. “It’s kind of a scary time. It’s the finances, it’s the health concerns. I look at the pictures in Yellowstone” — which has already begun reopening — “ … and I look at the pictures of all the vehicles and all the people watching that geyser and my hair gets grayer.”
“It’s been tough times,” Daines said in reply, discussing health care challenges at nearby Kalispell Regional Medical Center. “We should keep using common sense and move forward with safe, phased reopenings, and let’s get a date certain here for Glacier.”
In an emailed statement, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester wrote, “We all want Montana to reopen as quickly and safely as possible, and to do that, we have to continue to let science and our health care professionals lead the way.”
The National Park Service has been working with state, local and tribal leaders to plan reopenings. On Thursday, Bullock — a Democrat challenging Daines for his U.S. Senate seat — announced he would target the second week in June for Phase 1 of Glacier’s reopening, which would allow access to roads, public restrooms and some trails.
In an email, Bullock spokesperson Marissa Perry wrote that the governor would formally request an opening date “once he has a recommendation to do so from Glacier National Park and Flathead County based on ongoing consultation and planning occurring between local, state, park and Blackfeet Nation health officials.”
“The state’s Chief Medical Officer continues to work with (Glacier) Superintendent (Jeff) Mow and county, federal and tribal health officials to anticipate COVID-19 impacts on gateway communities and to put in place protocols to keep employees, visitors, and gateway communities safe," she wrote.
Jungster thinks state and federal authorities are doing the best they can. But her shop, and the rest of those in Apgar Village, remain closed. And some attendees at Friday’s meeting wanted things to move faster.
“It does feel like it’s been uber-conservative, to the point that it’s detrimental to the businesses,” said Aubrey Lorona, CEO of Swan Mountain Outfitters.
Brian Kelly, owner of the Izaak Walton Inn and Eddie’s Café, was rankled by having to wait while other national parks have already begun reopening. He cried foul at “the fact that Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce (Canyon), all these places are open and flourishing, and we have a knife in our back basically and we’re not getting the level of communication we deserve.”
“At what point,” he asked Daines, “can we expect maybe the Interior secretary or someone else to just step in and say, ‘This is just not appropriate.’ I just feel like this is not fair, the way this is being handled.”
Daines said that he had discussed the matter with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. “He is yielding to the states and even to the county level” on how to proceed with reopening, he said.
Glacier’s location poses some unique challenges. The park is bounded to the north by the Canadian border — closed to nonessential travel through at least June 21 — and to the east by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Tribal leadership has largely closed the reservation to outsiders through the end of June, and Glacier’s reopening webpage states that “additional coordination with the Blackfeet Nation will determine access from the Blackfeet Reservation.” Towards the end of the meeting, Daines limited his pledge to work towards an opening date to the park’s west side.
Some meeting attendees took issue with the east side closure, but not Jack Gladstone. A member of the Blackfeet Tribe, he founded Native America Speaks, a network of Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribal members who share their tribes’ history and culture with park visitors each summer.
Despite the disruptions, Gladstone’s still hoping for “some semblance” of a 36th season in the park this summer. But he also sees a need for caution.
This moment, he told the group, is “like that scene in 'Jaws' where they let people go out into the bay and swim and everybody’s splashing around.”
"The word of warning is the shark is still there and ready to be active, and if that happens we will all reassess the mistakes we made at this particular point in planning. So try to deal with with our tribe and harmonize with our tribe, because we have done some very progressive, mature things.”
As officials and business owners planned their next steps, all was calm in Apgar Village on Friday. Lake McDonald sat glassy, cradled as always by the snow-sheathed peaks of the park's interior. Jungquist — who allowed Missoulian reporters to visit the Village as her guests — said she'd been better able to notice the birdsong in recent weeks.
But on Friday, nature's sounds were tinged by a worker's lawn mower, and a radio blaring nearby.
"They're getting ready," she said of park staff.
For up-to-date information on Glacier National Park’s reopening, visit https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/openingplan.htm.
By: Patrick Reilly
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