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Explore the Crown of the Continent

Directly north of The University of Montana lie the scenic peaks, glaciated valleys and postcard-perfect scenery that constitute the Crown of the Continent ecosystem – what some call “The Backbone of the World.”

That landscape also serves as a living laboratory for climate change, a stage for urban-wildland interface issues and a tapestry of history. 

That’s why Rick Graetz and Jerry Fetz, co-directors of UM’s new Crown of the Continent Iniative, want you to know about it. 

Through UM’s new Crown of the Continent Initiative and the recent launch of a biannual electronic magazine, Graetz and Fetz will allow people to see issues driving decisions and research in the Crown. They are working to transform the standard perception many vacationers and locals have of the ecosystem encompassing nearly 13 million acres in Montana and Canada.

“There are so many exciting things happening [in the Crown], so much research that the public needs to know about,” said Graetz, a faculty member in UM’s Department of Geography and founder of Montana Magazine. 

“People can go look at the mountains and Glacier National Park, and they can now look at it with a different eye,” he said. “They can see what’s happened then and what’s happening now.”

The initiative, which allows for involvement at the organizational and individual level, began in December 2007 as an effort to provide an educational catalyst for collaboration between UM and Glacier National Park. It now has grown to include groups beyond the park, notably the Nature Conservancy, the Glacier Institute, Flathead Valley Community College, the University of Calgary and more.

The level of involvement in the initiative reflects the scope of the Crown, which spans the Continental Divide from the Elk River headwaters and Crowsnest Pass in Canada to Rogers Pass and the Blackfoot River drainage in Montana. 

The e-magazine compiles an inventory of past and present research in the Crown, translating “science speak” into “public speak,” Graetz said.

With special sections for time-lapse photography documenting climate change in Glacier National Park, historical accounts, and current and past images of the Crown, the e-magazine seeks to illustrate the ecosystem’s importance.

“Failure to understand and protect this valuable ecological landscape will result in devastating consequences downstream,” said UM President George Dennison, who stressed the importance of the initiative. “Hopefully we have learned from what has occurred elsewhere in the world, notably in China, when we fail to act as good stewards.”

Dennison also called for a broad base of support for the project.      

“Those most versed in the causes and consequences of climate change remind us that the work we must do requires the engagement of humanists, social scientists, policy experts, journalists, public servants, and, most importantly, average citizens,” he said.

Fetz is the former dean of the UM College of Arts and Sciences and Davidson Honors College – posts he took after serving as a professor of German and the humanities at the University. His direction highlights the University-wide nature of the initiative.

“There is hardly an academic discipline that doesn't or can't have a legitimate interest in this region,” he said. “It is especially exciting for me when I see people from many walks of life talking to one another, knowledgeably and passionately, and from many perspectives and experiences, about this unique and fascinating place in or near which we live.”           

Graetz agreed that the landscape is not the only critical feature of the Crown. “It’s probably the greatest concentration of land where people of all political persuasions have come together to promote conservation and work for it,” he said.

To view the e-magazine, go to To receive a copy of the magazine and other Crown of the Continent Initiative updates, e-mail

For more information, e-mail Graetz or Fetz at