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To Control Avalanches, Railroad Seeks to Shell Park

The snow-covered slopes of Glacier National Park in Montana, home to mountain goats, grizzly bears and other wildlife, pose an avalanche threat to passing trains, say officials of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
The snow-covered slopes of Glacier National Park in Montana, home to mountain goats, grizzly bears and other wildlife, pose an avalanche threat to passing trains, say officials of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. (Glacier National Park)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

KALISPELL, Mont. -- The famed symbol of the Great Northern Railway was a mountain goat perched on a rock in Glacier National Park.

That railroad's successor, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, now wants to lob artillery shells into mountain-goat habitat inside the park, which straddles the Continental Divide here in northwest Montana. The shelling would help control winter avalanches that sometimes threaten BNSF freight trains, about 40 of which pass daily through mountains just south of the park's border.

Besides seeking federal permission for the occasional wintertime bombardment of the park, the highly profitable railroad stands to benefit from little-known legislation -- passed in the Senate and pending in the House -- that would spend as much as $75 million in federal grants to pay for avalanche control.

The legislation, introduced by two senior Republican lawmakers from Alaska and written, in part, by an avalanche expert who is a paid consultant to BNSF, would approve the use of federal money to assist "avalanche artillery users."

Those who probably would benefit include state highway departments, ski areas and BNSF, if it receives permission from the National Park Service to bombard Glacier. The consultant and a railway spokesman said the railroad had nothing to do with the crafting of the bill and has not lobbied for its passage.

Using artillery for avalanche control is a well-established practice in Alaska and parts of the mountainous West. The 105mm shells used are military ordnance that spray shrapnel.

But advocates for the national parks and some of the nation's leading avalanche experts have strongly criticized BNSF's request to bombard Glacier. They have said the subsidized shelling of the park is aesthetically inappropriate and potentially harmful to wintering mountain goats, elk, deer, wolverines and endangered grizzly bears.

"There is a great hush over this park in the winter," said Steve Thompson, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group that works to protect the parks. "It would be a travesty to fire howitzers into the heart of one of our wildest natural lands."

It is unknown whether shelling would wake the bears, which hibernate during what could become the artillery season.

The Bush administration has strongly objected to the cost of the proposed avalanche legislation.

For most of the 100 years that trains have crossed the Rockies along the southern border of Glacier National Park, railroads have spent their own money to build and maintain snow sheds that cover the tracks. The sheds have worked well to protect passing trains, according to the Park Service.

Over the years, though, some snow sheds have been destroyed by fire. In addition, the snow pack in the park has been shifting, requiring avalanche protection on new stretches of track.


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