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Glacier National Park has seen a 40% growth in visitation since 2012. This unprecedented increase in popularity has implications for protecting natural and cultural resources as well as for providing a quality visitor experience.

Thanks in part to your generous donations, social scientists from the University of Montana’s College of Forestry have been helping park managers understand visitor use patterns and trends in Glacier National Park over the past decade.

The data was recently compiled into a story map to help show where, when and how many people are hiking on the trails throughout the park. This allows managers to know if there are any shifts in hiker patterns on trails, and to make science-based decisions to protect for a range of opportunities: from very popular areas with many people and amenities to areas where visitors can experience more solitude. Managing for this range of opportunities also ensures quality visitor experience and protection of resources.

To learn more about this project, we caught up with former interpretive and education ranger, and current PhD candidate at UM’s College of Forestry, Jaclyn Rushing to learn more about her involvement with this project.

Meet Jaclyn Rushing from the Research Team

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): Can you tell us a little bit about you?
Jaclyn Rushing (JR): I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. Most of my time was spent outside raising horses and dogs, trail running, biking around trails and town, and eventually camping, backpacking, skiing, and climbing. I got my Bachelors from the University of Oregon in Environmental Studies and Romance Languages (French and Spanish). It was at UO where I was introduced to environmental research and education. My experiences facilitating place-based environmental education through the Environmental Leadership Program is what launched me into interpretation in parks and protected areas. I received my Masters in the College of Forestry from Oregon State University. My research focused on place attachment and constraints to park visitation for diverse racial and ethnic groups. I love teaching, research, asking sticky questions, and learning, so I went on to pursue a PhD.

GNPC: What led to your interest in this PhD program at UM? How did you end up in Glacier?
JR: During my Masters, I took a road trip through the west and visited Glacier. I wanted to do whatever I could to work in Montana. I applied and got an Interpretive Internship (funded by the Conservancy) in 2017. I worked as an interpretive and education ranger from 2017 – Spring 2020, and then as a field research technician for the visitor use monitoring project in Summer 2020. I get really excited about using research to help support natural resource management. I love thinking creatively and collaboratively with managers and other researchers.

I reached out to Jenn Thomsen, Associate Professor of Park, Tourism, and Recreation Management, because she presented the results of the visitor use study at a luncheon in 2018. From getting to know her more, I learned that we have a very similar approach, and that UM provides incredible opportunities to work with a breadth of institutions from local conservation groups to international natural resource organization.

A woman in a park ranger uniform smiles while working on a laptop computer in the field next to a trail

Jaclyn Rushing, Field Research Technician.

Photo: Jaclyn Rushing

GNPC: Have there been any surprising discoveries from this research?
JR: The results of the visitor use monitoring research are not really surprising for those of us who live, work, and play in the park. It validates what we have all been feeling: visitation is increasing. Jeff Mow and others refer to Glacier originally as a backpacker’s park. That is changing and we have the numbers to support it. A lot of visitors ask us what we are doing and are really interested to hear about the number of people using the trails.

Hikers traverse snow on Hidden Lake trail. / NPS

Hikers traverse snow on Hidden Lake trail.

Photo: NPS

GNPC: Why is this research important for park managers and for visitors?
JR: The research allows park managers to monitor and identify shifts in visitation patterns, and make empirically-grounded decisions to protect visitor experience and natural and cultural resources. This program is unique in how much long-term data we have. UM and Glacier have been partnering to monitor visitor use since 2005, and the trail monitoring has been going on since 2011. We’re going on 10 years of trail data collection, which provides a valuable perspective of long-term trends. Not many parks have that much longitudinal data. The story map is a great addition to our program because it creates an accessible and engaging way to share all of our long-term data. It is intended for the public: to set expectations for future visitors, show trends for people who are more interested in the numbers, and educate people about the science of visitor use monitoring.

Hikers traverse snow on Hidden Lake trail. / NPS

Hikers traverse snow on Hidden Lake trail.

Photo: NPS

What Is Visitor Use Monitoring?

Since 2005, Glacier National Park and the University of Montana have partnered to monitor long-term trends in park visitation. Each summer a research team from the University of Montana installs trail counters, road counters, and wildlife cameras to collect data on the number of hikers, bikers, and drivers exploring the park’s roads and trails.

In 2011, seasonal trail use monitoring began in the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor and has since expanded to other areas of the park. Some trails are monitored every year, while others rotate on an every-other-year basis. The University of Montana is responsible for collecting, interpreting, and reporting this data.

A still of an interactive story map featuring trails in Glacier National Park and their use by visitors

You can learn more and explore the map by visiting the University of Montana’s Visitor Use Story Map website.

Your Support Makes A Difference

This project and many other critical projects would not be possible without your donations to the Glacier Conservancy. Learn more about how your support is making other projects possible in Glacier National Park.