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The Magazine of The University of Montana

Higher Learning

UM’s Crown of the Continent Initiative Spreads Knowledge of Vast Ecosystem

story by Dave Reese | photos by Susie Graetz and Dave Reese

1 North Fork_Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake, on the west side of Glacier National Park

Rick Graetz stands among a group of students atop the Continental Divide, explaining the intricacies of overthrust geology in Glacier National Park.

Swaths of rain blow quickly overhead, parting to reveal the sun, while small avalanches fall from the mountaintops in the distance. Fresh snow dusts the nearby peaks, and skiers and snowboarders hike past the group for some June tracks.

Even with distractions like these in a magnificent setting, Graetz is able to keep his students focused.

Left: Rick Graetz, left, stands with participants in a Crown of the Continent Initiative class near Mount Clements in Glacier National Park.
Right: Opposite page: Participants in a Crown course descend Cyclone Peak. In the background is Cyclone Peak Lookout, a U.S. Forest Service lookout near Polebridge, Mont.

The alpine classroom is part of The University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent Initiative, an educational and outreach program that brings together the work of scientists and researchers who study the ecosystem known as the Crown of the Continent.

With the Continental Divide as its backbone, this immense ecosystem stretches from Rogers Pass in Montana on the southern end to 11,263-foot Mount Joffre in British Columbia on the northern end. It reaches east to the Rocky Mountain Front of Canada and the United States and west to the Mission, Flathead, and Tobacco valleys. Glacier and Waterton national parks, as well as the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, are among the Crown’s jewels.

Scientists consider the Crown to be one of the most pristine and intact ecosytems in North America and a grand laboratory to study climate change. Only two year-round roads cross the 250-mile-long expanse: Highway 2 over Marias Pass in the U.S. and the Crow’s Nest Pass road in Canada.

Scientists consider the Crown to be one of the most pristine and intact ecosytems in North America and a grand laboratory to study climate change.

UM recognized the Crown’s rich ecology and biodiversity—and the people who study it—and in late 2007 began the Crown of the Continent Initiative. The initiative brings together scientists and researchers from several disciplines, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, and translates their work into a 300-level UM geography class and outreach programs for the public.

Graetz, a UM Department of Geography faculty member, leads the courses. Founder of Montana Magazine and a longtime Montana photographer, writer, and geographer, Graetz has traversed most of the Crown terrain in the past thirty years, writing guidebooks and publishing photo books. When he began to uncover how much research was being done in Glacier National Park—much of which was not widely disseminated to the public—he approached former UM President George Dennison about starting a class and program incorporating the work of researchers and bring this vital information to UM students and the greater public.

“We wouldn’t have had the program if it wasn’t for George Dennison,” Graetz says. “He believed in its potential and he said, ‘Make it happen.’”

After Dennison retired, new UM President Royce Engstrom helped continue to advance the Crown of the Continent Initiative, which he supported when he was UM’s provost.


The Blackfoot River, west of Lincoln

“Both Dennison and Engstrom think in a progressive way,” Graetz says.

UM Professor Emeritus Gerald Fetz, a former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Davidson Honors College, came on board to help administer the Crown program and negotiate the complex workings of higher education. He serves as co-director with Graetz.

“It’s becoming a big project,” Graetz says, “and I couldn’t have done it without Jerry [Fetz]. It’s still growing, and it’s become solid. We’re doing exactly what we said we’d do.”

Each year and in every class, the Crown initiative uncovers more information and research about the ecosystem.

“There are scientists working there, but few people know about the research, the science, history, and geography of this area,” Graetz says. “The whole idea is to get this information to the public and University students.”

The program was started initially to help track research in Glacier National Park, but it soon grew to involve a comprehensive ecosystem-wide program for students.

“There’s a lot of student interest in it,” Fetz says. “All of this work in ecosystem studies is now coming to the forefront.”

Much of the initiative’s outreach is through a digital magazine available online and numerous community lectures.

In addition to its 300-level geography class, the Crown of the Continent Initiative works with nonprofit organizations such as the Glacier Institute to offer classes to the public. This past June, several UM alumni and others participated in a class at Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, located on the North Fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park. Following morning sessions covering topics such as fire ecology along the rushing waters of Big Creek, the group hiked a narrow, winding trail through a forest thick with trees to nearby Cyclone Peak Lookout to see how fire ravaged the area in 1988 and 2003.

The following day, participants ventured to Logan Pass in the park to learn about overthrust geology and hear a brief history of Native Americans who once used this area. Graetz’s enthusiasm on the outings was not dampened by a slight limp incurred from a recent mishap in China. He is laid-back and uses humor and straightforward talk to impart his knowledge of the Crown. The combination works for students.

Bob Simonson took the three-day version of the class and celebrated his birthday atop the Continental Divide along with other classmates. Simonson, who earned a journalism degree at UM in 1977, says, “I thought this was the perfect way to spend my birthday. It’s a unique experience I’d recommend to anybody.”

Before taking the course, Simonson had heard the term Crown of the Continent but says he never quite knew what it represented.

Bob Marshall Chinese Wall Graetz

Looking north along the Chinese Wall from below Cliff Mountain, Bob Marshall Wilderness Area

“Now I understand it, and I have a lot more definition of where it is and what it is,” he says. “Today I see things and understand what they are as I’ve never done before. I’m a more educated and knowledgeable person than I was forty-eight hours ago.”

Graetz brings in experts in land-use issues, forest management, water and fisheries biology, climate, and weather. The scientists are passionate about what they do, and that excitement comes across in the classes.

With such interesting topics covered in the Crown of the Continent Initiative, it’s easy to see why the courses have become so popular with students and others.

“We don’t just go out and hike and climb,” Graetz says. “There are solid reasons why we teach this. There is no place in America where there is so much deep evidence and success from collaboration for the sake of conservation. Nowhere else has conservation been so widespread.”

Climate change is one of the most pressing areas of study taking place in the Crown. Dan Fagre, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and frequent lecturer in the initiative’s courses and public programs, presented some of his research during the June class at Big Creek.

Fagre outlined how Glacier National Park’s glaciers are disappearing rapidly, while participants listened in rapt attention. He estimates most of the glaciers in the park will be gone by 2030, as many high-elevation areas of Montana experience climate change nearly twice as fast as other areas of the world.

“If you want to study climate change—and subtle climate change—this is the place to do it,” Fagre says.

3 Swiftcurrent Kayaker

Mount Gould reflects in Swiftcurrent Lake as a kayaker paddles by, Glacier National Park

In fact, the 7,000-year-old Boulder Glacier disappeared in 1988, he says, and others are following suit. The most rapid loss of glaciers has taken place since 1966, and only twenty-five glaciers remain in Glacier National Park, he says.

“This is where the changes are occurring,” Fagre says. “The glaciers are now revealing rock that hasn’t seen the sun in 500 years.”

Fagre’s lecture hit home with the diverse group of students, many of whom came from around the country to hear it. When information on climate change is taught in close proximity to the glaciers it’s affecting, it seems to have a profound effect on students.

It’s not only the flora and fauna that make the Crown such a unique place. You also find a native people who have lived on this landscape long before white settlers did. This, also, is part of the Crown coursework and public programs.

“There are fascinating stories of the indigenous people here,” Graetz says. “There is no place in America where there was so much interaction between the people who were here before whites.”

This kind of research is vital to the curriculum of the Crown of the Continent Initiative. And it’s up to people like Candi Merrill to help get that information to alumni.

Merrill, program director for UM’s School of Extended and Lifelong Learning, says the Crown of the Continent Initiative is a way to provide a bridge between UM, Montana, and the public.

“Nothing before this has brought it all together in a way that the community was invited to participate in,” Merrill says. “We are asking people to come on in and hear about this, and have fun doing it.”

Merrill says topics in various disciplines help to portray the essence of the Crown of the Continent’s ecology, geology, and people.

“I would love to see courses come together, like climate and geology, with writing and poetry, even music,” she says. “The combinations of things are really exciting, so our participants can go away with a great breadth of experience. If we can incorporate combinations of things, we can reach a wide audience.”

It’s important, she says, to keep the courses to three to five days for nonstudents.

“They couldn’t possibly take a whole semester away,” Merrill says. “But it’s not just a guided tour. We’re out here actually learning in the morning in the classroom, and in the afternoon we’re out in the field with the scientists.”

Over the three-day course in June, friends were made and lessons learned—valuable stuff for students and alumni. Merrill finds there are many people like Bob Simonson who want to do more than take a road trip through Glacier National Park or one of the other fascinating places in the Crown of the Continent. People want to learn and do it in a hands-on way.

“It’s so much more meaningful to take three days and do a field course,” Merrill says. “You feel like you’re participating and learning, and that’s something you can take away and put in your pocket when the course is over.

“This is an opportunity for people to feel more of a connection to the place we live in. This is a pretty grand place. You can live on it, or you can live in it and amongst it. This really gets us feeling like we’re involved with the ecosystem.”

6 Middle fork of the Flathead

Middle Fork of the Flathead River, near Essex

Graetz and Fetz are also working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to tie in that region to the Crown of the Continent Initiative.

The duo says it’s essential that this important landscape is addressed as well. While nearly 83 percent of the Crown’s territory is protected by wilderness or national park designation and is in a neat package, the Greater Yellowstone is much more fragmented.

“The issues there are deeper and more complex,” Graetz says, “but the programs go together. The University of Montana’s address is in Missoula, but our home is every town in the state.”

The UM Yellowstone Initiative is now in its development stages.

Finally there is a place, with its headquarters in UM’s Geography Department, that brings all aspects of the Crown of the Continent together—science, ecology, culture, history, and landscapes.

The Crown of the Continent has a history of collaboration dating back to when noted conservationist George Bird Grinnell first coined the term for the region in 1901. Graetz and Fetz hope to continue that important work.

“This area is what it is because people of every interest and political persuasion put their shoulders to the wheel and have worked together to preserve it,” Graetz says. “A lot of people just assume that national parks and wilderness areas all of a sudden just happened one day. Of course that wasn’t the case.”

With more stress on open space and wild country, along with the need for sustainable development, it’s more important than ever to work collaboratively to preserve the Crown, Graetz says.

“We’re losing the space,” he says. “The best lesson learned in studying the Crown is that successful conservation can’t be done without collaboration and the input of local landowners, as they must help drive the agenda. We emphasize this to our students and folks in communities where we speak.”

And the Crown of the Continent Initiative is part of that driving force of collaboration. Graetz and Fetz envision UM taking the Crown of the Continent and Yellowstone initiatives one step further by creating a comprehensive course of study of mountain ecosystems called a mountain studies center. “UM should be known as a place to study mountains and take the lead,” Graetz says.

Jerry Fetz

Crown of the Continent Initiative Co-Director Jerry Fetz

Meanwhile, UM’s Crown of the Continent Initiative will carry on the legacy of research, conservation, and collaboration and make the information readily available to students and the public.

“This work goes back over a hundred years,” Graetz says. “It came well before the green movement. We hope the students learn the lessons of conserving ecosystems through responsible practices and take them out into the world.”

Get Involved

If you aren’t receiving the links to the Crown of the Continent e-magazines, send a note with your e-mail address in the body of the message with a simple line stating “please include me.” Send to: Links to previous issues are available at the Crown’s website, If you like what you see, your support can continue making the program and publications even better and available to more people. Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to The University of Montana Foundation, Box 7159, Missoula, MT, 59807. Ask that your gift be credited to “55Y Crown of the Continent.”


authorAbout the Author

Dave Reese earned a journalism degree from UM in 1988. He lives in Kalispell and is the editor and publisher of Montana Living magazine, Montana Health Journal, and producer of Montana Living TV.