National Park Service Signs Off on Decision Not To Allow Bombing of Avalanche Chutes in Glacier National Park

Snowsheds, not explosives, will have to protect trains from avalanches descending the southern flanks of Glacier National Park. NPS photo of snowsheds at work in 1979.

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.

Comments

Was the use of explosives that widespread? Was the railroad firing hundreds of rounds, or 1 or 2 in strategic places? How was it determined that wildlife were endangered? In today’s economy it would appear especially important not to hinder commerce on such an essential link, or is this more bureaucracy, people protecting their government jobs by being an overboard environmentalist?

Hats off to Supt. Cartwright & staff for not rolling over in response to commercial (and probably political) pressure as has too often been the case. Permitting these compromise permanent structures hardly seems "overboard".

Albertson, there was no use of explosives. The railroad was seeking permission to use howitzers to trigger avalanches, a fairly common practice in snow country where roads or ski areas have to be protected from avalanches.

I think there are about a half-dozen avalanche chutes of concern along the park's southern boundary. As for wildlife being endangered, the park is home to a wide range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, elk, mountain goats, and more, that could be impacted, directly or indirectly, by this form of avalanche control.

Snow sheds long have been used to accomplish the same goal -- to protect trains from avalanches.

When I worked at Glacier, I lived in the village of East Glacier, and drove U.S. Highway 2 that runs roughly parallel to the railroad tracks across the Continental Divide on a regular basis. As the photo with this story illustrates, the snowsheds are very effective in protecting trains from avalanches. The area in question is prime wildlife habitat - a large slope just below the highway in one spot is called Goat Lick for good reason, since minerals in the soil attract wildlife to that location.

I'd say the park made the right call, since the snowsheds are a viable option to explosives.

@ Albertson-

Lobbing the explosives is not really a long term option, anyway, in the grand scheme of things. Alta ski area in Utah, for example, recently proposed putting in a lift in an area where they now use this type of control because the US military has decided that having this type of weaponry out in the private usage might not be the best and is considering phasing it out. Installation of a new ski lift would get skier compaction (reducing avalanche risk) along with the ability to run control routes with hand charges and is being considered as an option.

Additionally, when worrying about contaminants in the watershed, the residue left behind from explosives may contaminate things. It has not been proven yet, but that's with today's standards and the current science. As you are probably aware, many items from the past that weren't considered a threat are now considered harmful and detrimental to human health.

From what I read here, it's a cost savings measure for the railroad, not a do or die situation, but I would be interested if the good folks at NPT could unearth some reports on the efficacy of these sheds.

Business has to adapt to market conditions, the government doesn't need to coddle it all the time. While the market isn't perfect, if you're somewhat against regulation and the needed bureaucracy, i suggest you google "bailout" or "savings and loans" or "sub prime mortgages."

You wrote:
"Business has to adapt to market conditions, the government doesn't need to coddle it all the time. While the market isn't perfect, if you're somewhat against regulation and the needed bureaucracy, i suggest you google "bailout" or "savings and loans" or "sub prime mortgages."

Don't want to stray from the subject, however you mention something that needs to be addressed with criminal indictments for those "bureaucrats" who where supposed to be monitoring and responsible for that segment of government control.

@ Albertson:

This is spot on.

Among many factors, one of the reason for this was lack of regulation... the government was too stupid and it had to get out of the genius' way on Wall Street so the bubble, errr, I mean economy, could grow. Regulations were peeled back and the regulators were not doing their job. I have to ask, how is your IRA or 401(k) doing? Good thing we let the market take care of itself.

The NPS, which can be inefficient and frustrating, does have it's own limitations, but here has made a good decision and is doing its job, which is the point. National Parks need protection and regulation.