Going-to-the-Sun Road is a cash cow, but this year sucklers of its tourism teat may come up dry. With snowplows still digging through the 60-foot Big Drift, near Logan Pass, the famed alpine road in Glacier National Park won't open for several more days. Combined with a planned closure the third week of September for construction, it's looking like 2011 will mark the shortest Going-to-the-Sun Road season ever—perhaps just 10 weeks long.
The effect on the tourism industry probably amounts to tens of millions of dollars. It's estimated that on a summer day the park generates more than $1 million in tourism revenue in the greater Flathead region. But not when Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, says Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau. The delay is already having a "tremendous impact," she says. "It's kind of like a spigot being turned on when the road opens."
Glacier spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan says the current depth of the Big Drift "is what we normally see at Memorial Day weekend, not now." The road was closed during Fourth of July weekend for just the third time, and the first since 1943, when the park was short staffed because of World War II. At the end of May, visits were down 14 percent from last year; overnight stays were down 56 percent.
All that melting of western Montana snow is also washing away the fly-fishing industry's business. John Staats, of the Fisherman's Mercantile at Rock Creek, says he can't recall a slower season in his 15 years working there. "It definitely hurts," he says. "With the runoff we've had with the snowpack, the water is just too high to wade, and that deters people from coming out here. And then with FWP nixing the floating [season extension], it just kind of leaves us in this limbo state until probably late July or early August, when it will become wade-able again."
It's impossible to know whether predictions of global climate change are being borne out in what are, after all, isolated weather events. Still, isn't it time for Montana's tourism industry—the second largest industry in the state, behind agriculture—to consider how continued volatile weather would affect it? If not, we might be letting our cash cows go the way of the proverbially boiled frog.