It took a while, but the National Park Service has signed off on a plan that prevents railroads from routinely using explosives to clear avalanche chutes above tracks that run along the southern border of Glacier National Park.
It was roughly three years ago that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway officials approached Glacier officials about the possibility of lobbing 105 mm explosives at key avalanche chutes in the area of Scalplock, Running Rabbit, Snowslip and Mount Shields mountains in John Stevens Canyon. The request came in the wake of a 2004 avalanche that caused a derailment along the border.
Snowsheds along the tracks long have been used by railroads to shield trains from slides, but the use of explosives is seen as considerably less expensive than maintaining the sheds. With freight trains running daily past Glacier, hauling upwards of 33,000 container cars a day to and from the Northwest, this section of track is a key route to keep open for commerce.
Just the same, the landscape targeted for bombing by the railroad is inside a national park and home to grizzly bears, mountain goats, wolverines, wolves, bald eagles, and other wildlife.
For those who might have forgotten, BNSF withdrew its proposal after public review of a draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared on the railroad's request and asked that the EIS process be suspended. But the NPS decided to complete the process in the event of future requests.
After an extensive analysis that began in 2005, the Park Service's Record of Decision opposing bombing was signed by Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder on September 12, 2008. As part of the compliance process, a Notice of Availability must first appear in the Federal Register before the ROD can be released to the public. The Notice of Availability is posted in the November 3rd Federal Register.
The decision permits BNSF to install a weather station and snow-depth sensor on park lands and for BNSF to conduct nonexplosive snow stability testing. If the railroad wishes to install avalanche detection devices within the park, this will also be permitted after review and approval.
While some detection devices were analyzed in the EIS, research and development continues in this field.
Permanent structures in the park might include avalanche detection systems, a weather station, a snow depth sensor and possibly small portions of snowsheds (if constructed) depending on design and location. Explosive use will not be permitted except under extenuating emergency circumstances in the event that human lives or resources are at risk and after all other options have been exercised by the railroad, including delays.
Glacier officials continue to recommend that BNSF construct additional snowsheds and to add on to existing ones in high-risk avalanche paths. However, this recommendation is an action that the National Park Service, the Flathead National Forest, and the Montana Department of Transportation do not have jurisdiction or authority to require BNSF to follow.
“The decision was based on the park’s special status as an internationally recognized natural area, the unique wildlife and other natural resources in the area and NPS values,” explained Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright.
Glacier National Park, together with Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta, comprise the world’s first international peace park and are also designated an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site.
“The area of the park that was the subject of this EIS has federally listed threatened and endangered species present, is within the park’s recommended wilderness, provides winter recreation for park visitors and is important winter range for deer, elk and other ungulate species," said Superintendent Cartwright. "The potential impacts of explosives on threatened and endangered species, wildlife, natural avalanche processes, recommended wilderness and natural sound were determined to be unacceptable.”
Park managers will soon begin meeting with BNSF to discuss a special use permit allowing avalanche forecasting and nonexplosive stability testing in the park for the 2008-2009 winter season.