Flathead park

West Shore State Park's federal encumbrances has heated up the relationship between the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Breaking up is hard to do.

Untangling Montana State Parks from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks caused some friction between the two agencies during a meeting in Miles City on Thursday. State parks has long explored moving to a different agency, possibly the Department of Commerce.

On Thursday the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board asked FWP director Jeff Hagener to create a committee to explore what to do with 16 state parks that have encumbrances on them because they were purchased in part with federal dollars that specify how they can be used.

A portion of one park in particular, West Shore State Park on Flathead Lake, has to be dealt with faster than the others because being out of compliance jeopardizes federal funding that FWP receives, an amount that totaled $27 million this year. FWP had been considering a land exchange to fix the problem, but finding property of equal value to Flathead lakeshore is difficult.

The 1,400 feet of lakeshore on the Flathead property is valued at $4,500 to $10,000 a foot, or $6.3 million to $14 million. FWP had hoped to move the federal wildlife encumbrance to the Marias, Yellowstone and North Shore of Flathead Lake wildlife management areas. But a ballpark figure on those properties added up to only $4 million. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said the properties have to be of equal value.

Other options FWP presented to the board to resolve the encumbrance was that state parks pay for the properties at a fair market price or some type of lease, again at fair market value, be worked out.

State parks board members balked at the proposals.

“This is kind of a Pandora’s box,” said Mary Sexton, parks board member. “To deal with one little sliver is inappropriate. I think there are other options that could be investigated.”

Sexton suggested a working group composed of a variety of colleagues, including parks board members, to explore other ideas.

“This is something that’s going to take some time,” she said.

Tom Towe, parks board president, said he disagreed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the exchange needed to be based on current fair market value.

“The fact is the law is not that clear, but that is how the feds are going to interpret it,” he said.

FWP director Hagener said it would be easy for him to deal with the other state parks that have federal encumbrances.

“I don’t think that’s an issue,” he told the board. “But West Shore is an issue.”

“I think there are other options to be pursued,” Sexton said.

“I’m not sure what the goal is, Mary,” Hagener responded.

Sexton emphasized that she wants the parks board included in the discussion.

“There are a variety of options here,” she added. “It’s not as black and white as it was portrayed here today.”

Hagener said he’s going to be asked why the other parks are being considered when they are not now an issue.

“This crap is littered all over the runway, so we’re not going to take off,” said Jeff Welch, parks board member. “We need to evaluate how to clear the runway.”

Hagener then asked about the board’s timeline, which Welch said should be sometime this fall.

“I’m not opposed, I’m just questioning how to do it,” Hagener said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.