AP Interview: Retiring Glacier National Park superintendent says parks need more diversity

WEST GLACIER, Mont. - National parks must do a better job of attracting more minority visitors and employees or else risk becoming irrelevant in the future, the retiring superintendent of Glacier National Park said.

More diversity among park visitors and National Park Service workers will better ensure the nation's most protected landscapes remain that way, Chas Cartwright said.

"If I look at who visits here, let's go with that one first, it is a lot of white people," he said. "We have an international visitation that is fairly substantial, but there are segments of our population that aren't spending much, if any, time in the park, and that really kind of begs the question: Are we relevant to all of America?"

Speaking to The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview about two weeks before he steps down Dec. 28, Cartwright said the lack of diversity is one of the greatest challenges facing the National Park Service.

Parks must find and tell the stories of minorities, accommodate their needs and, for kids, emphasize the fun side of the parks instead of just the educational aspect, he said.

"If we don't have future stewards and owners ... that are involved in helping protect them, then are they going to stay the great places they are over time?" Cartwright said.

A survey conducted for the park service in 2000, the most recent available, by Northern Arizona University researchers found 36 per cent of whites surveyed had visited a park service unit in the past two years, compared to 33 per cent of American Indians, 29 per cent of Asians, 27 per cent of Hispanics and just 13 per cent of blacks.

The report said blacks were more than three times as likely as whites to believe park employees gave visitors poor service and the parks were uncomfortable places for people like themselves.

Cartwright is ending 40 years of federal government service, the last four as superintendent of Glacier, one of the park service's top attractions. Last year, 1.8 million people visited the 1,500 square-mile park to see its massive peaks carved by glaciers and the grizzly bears, wolves and mountain goats that roam in its peaks and valleys.

He will hand over leadership to his deputy, Kym Hall, who will be interim superintendent until a permanent replacement is named in the spring.

Cartwright's tenure has been marked by the park's 100th anniversary, a Canadian-American agreement to retire mining claims outside the park and a multi-year renovation to a top attraction, the Going to the Sun Road that bisects the park and crosses the Continental Divide.

His successor will face many challenges, from responding to the effects of climate change and threats to the parks species and resources, to how to relieve congestion caused by the crush of visitors during the park's short nine-week summer season.

Warmer temperatures have shrunk the number of named glaciers in the park from 37 to 25 as of 2010, and federal scientists believe only a handful will remain after 2030. Park officials are seeing warmer waters that threaten bull trout habitat and an increase in insect and disease problems in the forest.

Cartwright said climate change is a contentious, polarizing issue, but more attention must be paid to how to react to the effects already being felt.

"If you can get out of that debate of whose fault is it, then you can start thinking about what strategic things that we can work on so we're not constantly reacting," he said.

An immediate issue is keeping aquatic invasive species at bay, those organisms and plants that can get into a watershed by hitching a ride on boats and rapidly spread. They can damage ecosystems, fisheries and wastewater systems.

The park is working with the Flathead Basin Commission and state agencies on an inspection system to keep invasive species out, but Cartwright said more work needs to be done to get the word out to the public.

"This is, in my mind, the single biggest threat to Glacier National Park because if they got in, it's a game changer," he said. "We are surrounded by them now."

The next superintendent will oversee a three-year study on how to reduce congestion in the park. Visitors now contend with full parking lots at popular hiking areas such as Logan Pass and Avalanche Lake, while park officials struggle with sustaining a costly shuttle system that has not offset traffic on the Going to the Sun Road to the extent they had hoped.

"We're just trying to figure out internally how we're going to approach this plan, we have no solutions," Cartwright said. "Is there a future for a transit system and what do we want it to accomplish? How financially sustainable can we make it, and more importantly, how much do we want it to contribute to lessening congestion on the road?"