First Nations

Formalized in a treaty (the first since the 1880s), there's now an ongoing First Nations effort to reintroduce buffalo into the northern tier of Glacier National Park, as well as neighboring tribal areas in Alberta, Canada. The endeavour is spearheaded by the InterTribal Buffalo Council, of which the president, Ervin Carlson, is a member of the Blackfeet tribe. The long term goal is the restoration of the buffalo's ceremonial and cultural standing, not fully realized since the late 19th century. In order to accomplish this, the traditional roaming patterns of the buffalo, which include crossing the international border (sans passports), need to be restored. Not surprisingly, Northern Rockies ranchers are not on board. In the meantime, the Blackfeet also see potential in tourism: plans call for the building of an interpretive center on US 2 dedicated to the history of the buffalo, as well as overnight buffalo drives where tourists can sleep in teepees along the way.

In another significant milestone, Energy Keepers – a corporation formed by the Salish and Kootenai confederation – took over ownership of the Kerr Dam on the Flathead River near Polson, MT, in September 2015, renaming it the Salish Kootenai Dam. Opposition to the dam was strong among tribal leaders when it was originally proposed in 1930 –understandably so – as it was built on an important religious site without consultation. Now, however, it will be the first Native American–owned hydroelectric facility in the US and, equally important, it will be a return to the historical management of the river and lake as natural resources by local tribespeople.

Beyond Borders

Despite the fact that the pristine wilderness areas of Banff, Jasper and Glacier are protected, the areas just outside the park boundaries are continually threatened by encroaching development. Oil and natural gas exploration either exists or is in the proposal stage throughout the region. And, in part because of the impact of warming, wildlife seeking more suitable habitats – and seemingly oblivious to signage marking park borders – roam elsewhere. Conservationists recognize the growing importance of not only safeguarding the status of the parks, but equally important, of expanding protections beyond park borders.

In collaboration with a handful of ranching families, tens of thousands of acres of private lands adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada have been preserved. Beginning in 1997, it's considered one of the country's largest conservation projects. Not far south of the border, the passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in December 2014 meant an additional 270 sq km (105 sq miles) was added to the deservedly well-loved Bob Marshall Wilderness Area just to the south of Glacier. Another several hundred thousand acres of Bureau of Land Management areas, national forest and conservation management areas were also earmarked for additional protections.

Climate Change

Fire and ice and natural cycles of destruction and regeneration have shaped the ecosystems and landscapes of these parks for millennia. However, the quickening pace of climate change, especially warming, means that today's visitors, whose impact must be managed, will likely be the last to experience the parks as generations before. Meanwhile, Native American people on both sides of the international border continue to actively assert their relationship to the lands and the traditions that have sustained them.

Visitor Experience v Ecological Integrity

As four of the world’s oldest and most symbolic national parks, Banff, Jasper, Glacier and Waterton face a difficult modern quandary. On one hand they proudly represent what – in the words of a 2009 Emmy award–winning documentary – was ‘America’s best idea.’ On the other, they remain litmus tests for the planet’s ongoing battle to protect its wild but delicate ecosystems from multiple human threats.

Set up in the late 19th and early 20th century as ‘parks for the people,’ the underlying philosophies that guide how these protected areas are managed have shifted significantly in the last decade with the focus moving away from the ‘visitor experience’ mantra of the early conservationist movement toward the more pressing question of ‘ecological integrity.’ This debate has grown more heated since the 1960s when the damage wreaked by millions of annual visitors first became worryingly apparent.

Banff at the Crossroads

These days an estimated five million people pass through Banff annually and, due to the environmental pressure caused by such large numbers, many feel that the town has been stretched to its limit. Actions to tackle this problem began in the early 1990s and in 1996, after two exhaustive years of research, the Banff-Bow Valley study compiled a 75-page document called At the Crossroads. Echoing the fears of many, the report stressed that if Banff’s development plans and burgeoning visitor numbers were allowed to continue unchecked, the park’s ecological integrity would be irrevocably harmed.

In the years since, the park management has become more coordinated and less visitor-centric, placing caps on townsite development and employing seasonal hiking restrictions in sensitive areas to reduce human–wildlife encounters. Additionally both short- and long-term plans are now formulated and reviewed regularly in consultation with tourism, environmental, community and aboriginal groups to push innovations – including wildlife ‘bridges’ across the Trans-Canada Hwy – designed to redirect the park toward a more sustainable future.

The Heat is On

South of the 49th parallel, Glacier National Park juggles issues of both the hot (forest fires) and cold (melting glaciers) variety. Ongoing studies by the US Geological Survey on Glacier’s ‘rivers of ice’ have revealed that many of these frozen behemoths have shrunk by more than a third since the 1960s, evidence enough, suggest some scientists, of potentially damaging climate change. And even more dramatically, the consensus from the scientific community is that not a single Glacier National Park glacier will survive past the year 2030 (some say as soon as 2020). North of the border, the easily accessible Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park is melting at an alarming rate of approximately 5m (5.5yd) a year.

The parks have always faced an annual battle with summer fires, Glacier especially, but the frequency and intensity of the blazes have increased. Over 10% of Glacier National Park's total tree cover burned in 2003, the hottest summer on record. The heat was turned up again in 2006 when over 137 sq km (53 sq miles) was razed in the Red Eagle Fire on the south side of St Mary Lake. The Reynolds Creek Fire in August 2015 shut down the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Rd, while in Jasper the Excelsior Fire resulted in the temporary evacuation of the Maligne Lake area after an exceptionally dry spring and summer. Acknowledged as an important natural process, the fires become problematic when human-ignited and/or when they threaten property and livelihoods. Also, importantly, they burn a large hole in the area's economy.