Ask Kyle Johnson what his favorite place in Glacier National Park is and a broad smile comes on his face.
“Wherever I’m at,” he answers — there might be a secret or two behind that smile.
Johnson, perhaps more than anyone, knows nearly every nook and cranny of the 1 million acre Park. The longtime wilderness manager and law enforcement ranger will retire at the end of this month after a long and distinguished career at Glacier.
A hall of fame athlete and standout football player, Johnson graduated from Columbia Falls in 1980. His father, Ralph, was a hall of fame basketball coach and Johnson cut his teeth in the woods on trips with Ralph in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
During college, Johnson got his first job at Glacier working summers as a stone mason on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In 1984, he graduated from Montana State University with a degree in resource management and continued working in Glacier on the road crew, plowing snow. But, in the spring of ‘86, he took a job as a summer backcountry law enforcement ranger in the Belly River.
“I took a $4 an hour paycut,” he recalled in a recent interview. “But rangers had pretty cool jobs ... It wasn’t about the money.”
From there, he worked as a ranger in the North Fork under district ranger Roger Semler. The Red Bench Fire burned down the bridge across the North Fork and they either took a rowboat across the river or drove the Inside Road, which the Park plowed for a few winters, to get to work. He helped biologist Diane Boyd trap some of the first wolves in North Fork as she was doing her groundbreaking research at the time.
In 1991, he went to work as the last full-time ranger at Walton. He talked the Park into making it a student co-op position and he went back to Flathead Valley Community College and got a degree in social science and criminal justice.
“I just took the tests, I didn’t go to class,” he recalled.
He recalled Walton as being a true backcountry ranger position — ski patrols and avalanche forecasting in the winter; long patrols on foot and horseback in the summer. He used a lot of traditional skills and learned to pack mules, hauling supplies up to Porcupine Lookout. In 1992, Glacier reorganized and Johnson became the West Lakes backcountry coordinator and, in 2000, he became the parkwide wilderness manager.
He also continued his law enforcement ranger duties, going out to numerous search and rescues over the years as well as daily law enforcement details. One fairly recent rescue had a happy ending — in 2015 they found a father and son in the Nyack drainage and plucked them out of the backcountry via helicopter as the Thompson Fire bore down on the hikers.
Managing wilderness is no small task in Glacier. Most of the Park, though not dedicated wilderness, is managed as such.
“We’ve gotten better at managing the impacts to wilderness,” he said. “Better at monitoring conditions.”
In 1971, the Park instituted a backcountry camping permit system and it’s been refined over the years. Today the camp sites are better, the toilets are better and because the permit system limits crowds by default, the wilderness experience is maintained for most regions of the Park. Glacier also does a good job educating permit users — a camper can’t get a permit before watching an educational video first.
But there are still plenty of concerns, Johnson noted. The Park has tripled its visitation over the years — this year a whopping 3.2 million-plus people visited Glacier and that’s tripled the impacts, while staffing is easily a third less.
Today, Glacier is relying more on volunteer help. It had 36 backcountry volunteers this summer. Volunteers help with river patrols and backcountry patrols as well as maintenance.
“We’re doing more with less,” he noted.
As one example, this year the Park used volunteers at the Fifty Mountain campground to educate campers and keep an eye on bears. The volunteers lived in a wall tent in an administrative site and kept an eye on the coveted camp perched on the edge of the north end of the Garden Wall. For the first time in years, they had no problems with bears.
“It was a huge success,” Johnson noted.
Human waste is a big concern. With thousands of day hikers at places like Avalanche Lake, pit toilets will eventually fill before the waste will compost.
The Park is experimenting with a different kind of pit toilet at Hole-in-the-Wall. It is designed to separate the urine from the fecal material. The acid in the urine keeps the fecal material from decomposing.
By separating the two, the fecal material should decompose faster and, eventually, will become inert compost, which can be disposed of safely with low or no impacts to the environment. The toilets are already being used in Europe.
Having traveled throughout Glacier’s backcountry over the years, he’s also had an opportunity to showcase it as well. He guided former first lady Laura Bush and her party in 2003 and again in 2011 and more recently, took Denis McDonough, former President Obama’s Chief of Staff, on a backcountry trip in Glacier in 2015.
Johnson and his wife, Mary, have two grown children, Ellie and Parker — both were Hall of Fame athletes as well at Columbia Falls High School. He said he’s optimistic about the future of Glacier’s backcountry and its wilderness character.
“I think we’ve got good leadership,” he said.
And that favorite place?
“You can’t name a bad place in this Park,” he said. “It’s been a great ride. I got to do a lot of things and got paid to it.”