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Social Science in Support of Impact Mitigation of Rehabilitation of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park

Student: Melissa Baker, Ph.D Candidate
Faculty: Wayne Freimund, Ph.D.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR) is the primary road through and a featured attraction of Glacier National Park (GNP). Completed in 1932, the road connects the east and west entrances of the park and allows visitors to traverse the variety of ecosystems that exist within the park. A featured attraction of GNP, the GTSR is designated as a National Historic Landmark and approximately 475,000 vehicles per year travel the GTSR.

Shuttle

In 2007 Glacier National Park began a ten-year road construction project to rehabilitate the Going to the Sun Road. The plan is intended to rehabilitate the road in a manner that preserves its historic character while: minimizing effects on natural, cultural, and scenic resources; maintaining a world-class, visitor experience; providing for visitor and employee safety; and minimizing the impacts to the local and regional economy.

In the summer of 2007, Glacier National Park implemented a free, voluntary, park-operated shuttle bus system along the GTSR aimed at mitigating the effects of the road construction project on park visitors, businesses and tourism. In its initial year of operation, the GTSR shuttle system included three routes with a total of 17 shuttle stops and two transit centers. The system was served by a total of 29 buses. The initial ridership goal for the GTSR shuttle system was 800 to 1,600 rides per day. Over the course of the season, the shuttle system provided 132,093 rides (approximately 2,000 per day) to GNP visitors who collectively traveled 335,632 miles with supply far exceeding anticipated demand.

For the past three years researchers from the Department of Society and Conservation at the University of Montana have been conducting studies to assist in the planning of the shuttle system and to understand the system once it came online. During the first two-years of the study (2005-2006), the focus was on quantifying visitor use at popular destinations and pullouts along the Going to the Sun Road. Using a combination of observations, visitor surveys, and GPS trail studies, researchers were able to provide park managers with information on how each of the study sites was being used by visitors. This information has proven beneficial to park managers during the planning and refinement of the shuttle system.

During the first year of implementation of the Going to the Sun Road shuttle system the focus of the project changed from that of understanding how specific areas along the road were being used to how visitors make decisions on shuttle use, how and for what purposes they used the system and satisfaction measures of shuttle system service quality. Researchers also sought to understand how the types of activities and experiences visitors desire when coming to Glacier National Park influenced their decisions on whether or not to ride the park-operated shuttle during their visit.

The study will continue in 2008 when researchers will replicate the studies conducted during the first two years of the project at select shuttle stops along the road. The purpose of this phase of the project is to understand how visitors’ use of specific areas has changed as a result of implementing the shuttle system.