Milestone Season Comes to a Close

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon

Welcoming visitors at the west entrance of Glacier National Park, Laura Mamuzich meets people from around the world on a daily basis. She and the other park rangers at the most popular entrance station like to keep track of the license plates and see who can check off all 50 states first.

“We see plates from everywhere, even Hawaii,” she said.

This has been her beloved job for most of the past nine years, and in that time, there hasn’t been a summer quite like this one.

“It was a very, very busy summer,” she said.

Glacier Park had its busiest summer on record this year and it’s poised to finish up 2014 as the busiest year ever.

Bowman Lake - Glacier National Park. Photo by Greg Lindstrom for the Flathead Beacon

A visitor kneels along the shore of Bowman lake to enjoy the scenery on Oct. 2, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Tourism had a noticeable uptick across the Flathead Valley this year. Glacier Park International Airport is celebrating another banner year and has broken passenger records nearly every month.

Indeed, a big reason behind the boost is the million-acre national park in the valley’s backdrop.

One of the largest drivers of tourism, national parks across the country are collectively enjoying a memorable year. In the South, communities are recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by visiting historic sites within the National Park System. In the West, the same popularity is sweeping the vast sites such as Yellowstone, which attracted 2.7 million people through August and is on pace to approach its all-time record of 3.6 million.

“National parks are a lot of people’s connection to America,” said Jeffrey Olson, public information officer for the National Park Service.

“We’re America’s storyteller; the keeper of America’s story, the natural, historical and cultural landscapes and history.”

The last two years, Montana’s national parks have generated $400 million annually in economic benefits. When Glacier Park welcomed 2.2 million visitors a year ago, they spent an estimated $172 million in nearby communities.

This will be the 12th time in history, and seventh time in eight years, that more than 2 million people visited Glacier in one year. This national park, tucked in a valley of barely 90,000 people, was relatively quiet for most of the year, with a monthly average of 11,000 people visiting from January through March. By April, there were 28,000 visitors, and then May spiked to 112,000. Benefiting from sunny weather, the next few months hit like a tidal wave, with 1.7 million people visiting between June and August.

Only one other period — between 1991 and 1994 — saw this level of sustained, near-record popularity.

“I’ve been here a long time and it just seems like we’re just getting busier and busier every year,” said Brad Blickhan, the Lake McDonald area ranger.

Blickhan thinks the recent economic recession forced families to downsize their vacation plans and choose less expensive options, such as national parks. Gas prices were also favorable this summer.

There’s also been the benefit of Canada’s strong economy in recent years, which has benefited commerce along Montana’s border communities.

The technology age has helped spread the majesty of Glacier Park’s picturesque identity, and the local park has stood out as a leader on social media, with its multiple accounts on various platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Glacier Park’s Facebook page has more than 388,000 followers, one of the highest totals for any national park.

On a daily basis, people share photos or comments on the site, sharing their experiences in the park or celebrating it as an iconic place.

“Glacier is on lots of people’s bucket lists,” said spokesperson Denise Germann. “Even if you’ve been here only once, it makes such a connection, and one way to keep in touch with the park is online. Glacier Park really connects with people.”