Restoring native plants at Glacier National Park helps maintain natural beauty.
By Ann Kaiser, Contributing Editor
About 2 million people visit Glacier National Park in Montana each year. It would surprise most of them to learn how much careful planning and physical labor go into maintaining that natural beauty. I found out only by doing some grand-scale gardening with park ecologist Joyce Lapp and her crew.
On a gorgeous late-June morning, I meet Joyce at the native plant nursery in West Glacier. Here she oversees propagation of 254 species, grown from seeds and cuttings collected in the park, to restore vegetation after road repair and improvements at campgrounds, scenic vistas and park lodges here and at Canada’s Waterton National Park.
During her greenhouse walk-through, we see tiny ferns growing from spores. Outside, where flat after flat covers the ground and pots hold plants of all sizes, she pulls a few snowberry cuttings to check root development.
“Many volunteers help our small nursery crew with chores, including hand-weeding,” she says. She shows me how to shake potentilla seedlings from their small cone-shaped containers and gently pull away tiny weeds, lichen and moss. Everything’s labeled by variety and the area of Glacier National Park, to make sure it’s planted in an appropriate zone and elevation.
Joyce, hired in 1987, built the nursery in conjunction with a major repair of the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park. A native of the nearby Flathead Valley, Joyce has degrees in horticulture and soil science. She and her staff conduct about 50 revegetation projects annually.
We load a truck with more than 100 plants bound for the Rising Sun Campground. Going-to-the-Sun Road is still closed at Logan Pass after a late snow, so we drive 90 minutes around the the park to the east entrance.
The rugged, glacier-carved mountains are awesome! Wildflowers paint roadsides we navigate curvy narrow roads.“The park encompasses a million acres that I’m privileged to call my office,” Joyce says. “Even after all these years, some days my heart just hurts at how beautiful it is here.”
With Joyce, Rebecca Lawrence and four other revegetation crew members, I carry pots of snowberry, sticky geranium, purple penstemon and native grasses to the campground’s natural amphitheater, where visitors regularly gather for ranger talks. We place plants along the improved paths and perimeter, following Joyce’s restoration plan.
Then we pull weeds and dig with spades, trowels and Pulaskis, combination pickaxes and trowels that can unearth rocks and cut through tree roots. Much harder than planting my flower beds!
I fill water buckets at a pump, then haul them to six hardy little “mountain lover” (Paxistima) shrubs I’ve just transplanted—the only drink they’ll get until it rains.” Next I put in pretty wild strawberry plants.
Monitoring and controlling invasive weeds is also part of Joyce’s job. “I even inspect all the gravel brought into make sure it’s weed-free,” she says. “Our goal is to keep the native plants strong and healthy to preservethe natural ecosystem.”
Beauty at Every Bend
I spy elk and mountain goats grazing as we drive west on Going-to-the-Sun Road to check construction. The route follows the shoreline of pristine St. Mary Lake. Traffic is stopped ahead—there’s a black bear not far off the road!
A mile below Siyeh Bend, Joyce radios the park dispatcher. A ranger comes to let us through the locked gate. Soon the pavement ends—and the gravel road passes lingering snow piles at 5,000 feet. “As you see,” she says, “our working season will be short this year, because winter just wouldn’t quit!”
We walk past huge road construction equipment as Joyce reviews the plan she developed to revegetate the roadside, a new shuttle transit stop and traffic pull-off area. “Last season we collected plants and seeds here to grow at the nursery,” she says. As soon as the paving’s done, we’ll move in. The roadsides in the park are my legacy.”
With dirt under my fingernails, we drive back to West Glacier. It was a strenuous day, but immensely satisfying to contribute in even a small way to the work of Joyce and her crew as they maintain the glorious scenery of Glacier National Park.
To learn more about Glacier National Park’s native plant nursery or volunteering there, visit the website or call (406) 888-7835.