How can Glacier National Park best restore the Sperry Chalet “experience” after the 103-year-old dormitory burned in an ember storm last summer?
That’s the central question to be answered by the public during a one-month “scoping” period intended to launch the process of replacing the historic high-country chalet.
In their first public document discussing the chalet’s future, Glacier Park officials say they intend to “continue to provide a remote backcountry chalet experience surrounded by recommended wilderness.”
But they also put a top priority on reducing impacts to “natural and cultural resources while restoring the chalet experience.” And with the chalet a six-mile hike up a steep, now-burned trail, any construction will be a complicated proposition.
The park revealed four preliminary concepts for the project:
- Restore the Sperry dormitory to as “close to as it was,” reflecting its historically significant period (1914-1949). “Such an approach would provide for some critical updates to current building codes and improve life safety,” the document said. “The visitor experience would be very similar to what it has been for decades.”
- Restore the dormitory “in place, but modernized,” using as much of the “historic fabric” as possible. “This type of approach would provide the best opportunity to ensure its use is well-suited for a visitor experience for the next 100 years,” the park said. This option would include code upgrades, insulation between interior walls and some additional engineering and design work.
- Build an entirely new structure, complementing the Sperry site’s historic landscape, but placing the dormitory in a slightly different location to avoid the path of recent avalanches. The original dormitory’s stone exterior walls, which survived the fire, would be stabilized and the park would provide “visitor interpretation” of the historic structure.
- Take an entirely different approach to providing the Sperry Chalet experience, such as yurts or canvas wall tents, as are used as some other national parks, including Yosemite. Those structures would be taken down at the end of each season. Tent cabins were used in the earliest years of the Sperry Chalet operation, before the dormitory was constructed. The remaining structures on site, including the historic dining hall, would be utilized. The walls of the dormitory would be stabilized and “visitor interpretation of the original structure as a ruin would be provided,” the park said.
Park officials presented the options at a Wednesday night meeting in Kalispell, and promised to do so again at another as-yet-unscheduled meeting and an online event. Schematic designs of the alternatives are being prepared, with a June release expected, followed by more public comment. Anderson Hallas Architects of Denver is leading the concept design phase. The company also led the design process for the renovation and rehabilitation of Many Glacier Hotel, completed in 2017.
Also in the works is a formal environmental assessment of the options, to be completed by September, with a third round of public meetings and comment to follow. No date is yet set for a final decision.
However, the scoping letter did emphasize that there are a number of issues and concerns to be addressed, and invited commenters to suggest other worries.
Sperry Chalet’s dining hall and dormitory are part of the Great Northern Railway Buildings Architecture in the Parks National Historic Landmark. Combined, these buildings are the largest collection of Swiss Chalet-style buildings in the United States. Preservation of the historic structures is a priority and a concern, according to the park.
Then come the logistics associated with the remote site. Availability of water at Sperry Chalet has seen a significant decline over the past four years. In fact, the chalet’s concessionaire had to modify operations because of water supply issues in two of those summers.
Also of concern is the short construction season – possibly no more than three months a year – in which to rebuild the dormitory, and the difficulty of access to the site through the fire landscape. Thousands of trees have been reported down and lying across trails in the burned area.
The number of helicopter flights necessary to move building materials to an active construction site could raise concerns, the park said, given its timing during Glacier’s busiest hiking and camping season.
The construction and placement of the new structure in the backcountry could impact the park’s wilderness qualities, as well as impact grizzly bears and Canada lynx, both protected species.
In addition, more information is needed on the state of the stone walls remaining after the fire. An overflight last month showed the walls still erect, surrounded by a heavy snowpack, but the actual quality of the stone itself has not yet been assessed.
The chalet site’s location in a known avalanche chute is problematic, the scoping letter said. Avalanches have caused damage to the site and its buildings over the past six years.
In addition, there is a concessionaire – Belton Chalets – with a three-generation family history at Sperry Chalet to be considered. One issue is the possibility of interim concessionaire services at the site while the chalet’s future is determined, the scoping letter said.
Finally, the park broached the topic of funding for the reconstruction, listing it as a concern. There are no price estimates yet for the different options.
The Glacier National Park Conservancy is partnering with the park to raise funds for the reconstruction. The conservancy provided all the funding for last fall’s emergency stabilization work at the site and is financing this winter’s overflights to ensure that the dormitory walls are still standing.
Since the fire, “the outpouring of support from people across the country who weren’t involved in the conservancy’s work before has led me to see that this project will expose more people to our work, people who maybe didn’t even know the conservancy existed before,” said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the conservancy.
To date, more than 900 individuals have donated about $200,000 to the Sperry Action Fund, of which $120,000 was used for the pre-winter stabilization. Those donations are essential, Mitchell said.
“We want to be able to say yes when the park needs help,” he said. “We can be nimble and help the park as they think through this project.”
As was true at Many Glacier, federal funding will provide the core dollars to rebuild Sperry Chalet, Mitchell said, as the building is owned by the U.S. government. “We’ll wait for the park to tell us what contribution they need the conservancy to make. It will be a significant investment.”
The Glacier National Park Conservancy will not advocate for a specific option at Sperry Chalet, according to its director. “Our expertise is not in developing the project.”
But as with other park projects, “we will play more the role of looking at what they are proposing and helping them think through how attractive that will or won’t be in terms of private philanthropy,” he said.
“That’s a role we play on lots of projects,” Mitchell said. “They’ll say, we have an issue or a project, and we’ll say that’s something people really care about and we’re all in, or possibly we’ll say explain more about how that is attractive or important to the general user and the park experience. We’ll be advisory, but won’t advocate for a specific outcome.”
April 2 is the deadline for comments on the scoping document and its various questions, concerns and options for the future.
Comments can be delivered online at: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/sperrychalet2018. Or send comments to: Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Sperry Chalet, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936.