By Pat Williams
The story of that lovely corner of America, known as Glacier National Park, is the story of fire and ice: the natural ice of snow, storms, and glaciers; the political fire of leadership in the face of fierce opposition. Four times during the past three million years great ice sheets have advanced and retreated, determining Glacier's landscape. The massive ice floes chewed at the mountains, gouging the peaks into the most incredible natural spectacle to be seen anywhere along the nation's Continental Divide. The park's cirques, basins, v- and u-shaped valleys, waterfalls and hanging walls are the remnants of ancient ice carvings.
Although summer is the time of visitation to this wonderful park, summer's sun arrives late and leaves this high country early, returning it to the fierce grip of winter's snow and ice. When glorious summer does arrive in Glacier, all life seems to respond. The lush forests and meadows momentarily shake winter's grip and the tide of succulence moves up the mountain slopes. Flowers seem impatient as they push through the snow, small mammals lazily sunbathe on the high rocks. As summer quickly matures, the grizzly grazes and fattens for the inevitable long winter sleep. This harsh land seems to resurrect itself in the sudden but short burst of summer's glow.
Today, everyone seems to support Glacier as a land protected under national park status. It was not always so. When, in December of 1907, Montana's U.S. Senator Thomas Carter introduced the legislation to authorize these lands as a national park, there was an outcry of objection from many Montanans most notably from those living closest to the proposed park.
The local newspapers the Interlake, the Kalispell Journal, the Whitefish Pilot and the Kalispell Bee editorialized against the legislation. They opposed it mostly on economic grounds: loss of harvestable timber and lost mining jobs. Turn-of-the-century mining and timber companies and, apparently, many of their workers saw Glacier's mountains and valleys as a grab bag for development. The Interlake editorialized, "There may be some local people who favor the park plan, but we have observed only two." Perhaps, even from the vantage point of a century later the local opposition is, at least, understandable. Local economic passions always blow hard and they are difficult winds to withstand.
Montana Senator Joe Dixon valiantly managed the park's legislation on its way through the Senate, adjusting boundaries, settling mining claims and permitting existing summer cottage leases. The bill passed the Senate and was taken up by the House amid continued opposition from people, particularly those in Montana's Flathead Valley. The Interlake editorialized its concerns about "throngs of wandering tourists." Although the nearby Great Falls Tribune supported the national park designation, a blizzard of opposing letters from Montanans slowed and, at times, stopped the legislation's progress. The Tribune urged the bill's progress with these words, "... the country belongs to all the people...citizenship should dictate a policy that would make the country accessible and available to the most people. A national park would undoubtedly serve that end."
Following tortured legislative routes and with the courageous leadership of Montana Congressman Charles Pray, the legislation designating the park was signed into law on May 11, 1910.
Many factors convened to protect these nationally owned lands with national park status. The insistence of the early environmentalist George Bird Grinnell was critical. The determination of the chairman of the board of the Great Northern Railroad James J. Hill and his son Louis was brought to bear, although the influence of the Hills in the legislation seems less important than some historians have noted. Some citizens of Montana wrote letters and attended meetings supporting the legislation. However, it could not have been easy for our Montana congressmen and senators to withstand the fires of the fierce local opposition and see the legislation into law.
It seems that nothing comes easy in Glacier: not summer; certainly not the recent three-month effort to plow America's most scenic roadway, the 52-mile long Going-to-the-Sun highway; nor the courageous political leadership which created this grand national park almost a century ago.
Pat Williams is a former Democratic congressman from Montana. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.