Officials envisioning a new future for Montana State Parks

2014-07-20T00:00:00Z 2014-09-04T13:08:12Z Officials envisioning a new future for Montana State ParksBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Amid record-setting visitation and the celebration of Montana State Parks’ 75th anniversary, there is a lot of discussion behind the scenes among agency officials about what the next 10 years might look like.

“With a limited amount of resources and staff, we’re going to be forced to make some hard decisions,” said Chas Van Genderen, parks administrator.

State parks just released its five-year outdoor recreation plan, a requirement to receive federal funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Within the large, broad document is a sentence that says the plan “is a statement … to envision a new future for recreation in Montana.”

Basic to that vision is how to pay for 54 state parks with no state general funds and run by a skeleton crew compared to surrounding states.

“We have the smallest budget of any western state except for North Dakota, which has only 13 parks,” said Tom Towe, a state parks board member and Billings attorney.

According to a 2012 study by the Environmental Quality Council, North Dakota employs 58 full-time and 260 seasonal workers for its 13 state parks, eight natural areas, five preserves and one historic site. Montana State Parks has 65 full-time employees and 145 seasonal workers for 54 state parks and 15 affiliated sites covering more than 46,000 acres.

“We all value recreation across Montana,” Van Genderen said. “Now we have to decide how we’ll pay for (state parks.)”

Joining forces

In its recreation plan, Montana State Parks talks about partnerships with local user groups, as well as other federal, state and local governments — most of which are also hard-pressed to find additional funding.

So state parks and its board are also exploring other options such as user fees for paddlers, bicyclists or other nonmotorized recreationists, or tapping into the bed tax or coal tax. They’re also looking into the creation of a foundation that would raise funds and take donations to help support state parks.

“We’re looking at everything, including permits and camping fees,” Towe said. “We’re looking at working with concessioners to pay for some capital improvements. We’re looking at all sorts of funding options, some of which are not politically acceptable, such as raising the vehicle license fee.”

Last year, Montana State Parks earned about $3.7 million from a fee that has been added to vehicle licenses since 2003. The fee started at $4 and has since been raised to $6, of which $5.37 goes to state parks. The fee is the main source of funding for state parks.

But Montana also added large new state parks under Gov. Brian Schweitzer, such as the 4,000-acre Yellowstone River State Park east of Billings and the 5,600-acre Fish Creek State Park northwest of Missoula. Although there was money and support for the purchase of the large parcels, there was no additional cash to fund the maintenance or improvement of the lands.

“If we really care about these places, we need to find a way to deal with these challenges,” Van Genderen said.

Where to invest

State parks don’t draw visitors like Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, but they still handle a large volume of mostly in-state hikers, boaters and cyclists. Last year more than 2.11 million people visited Montana’s state parks, a record high. That was a 5 percent increase over 2012, despite Bannack State Park being closed for seven weeks following a flash flood. The most-visited state park was Great Falls’ Giant Springs State Park, with more than 307,000 visits. In second place was Billings’ Lake Elmo State Park.

According to the state parks’ recreation plan, support for trail-based activities like walking and bicycling are very high in communities. But federal funding to help build trails has been greatly reduced. For example, when the Land and Water Conservation Fund was first created about 50 years ago, 60 percent of its funding went to states. Now, only 12 percent is allocated to states, Van Genderen said. The money used to be granted to building things like swimming pools in small towns, but there’s been little investment in the upkeep of such facilities.

“We need to revisit that,” Van Genderen said.

“While federal lands are undoubtedly important landscapes in Montana, we must also recognize that community parks, trails and recreation facilities close to where Montanans live, work, learn and play are where the majority of residents interact with the outdoors on a daily basis,” the state recreation plan stated.

Facilities and parks aren’t money pits — they also produce cash through the creation of jobs and income. The state parks recreation plan said “outdoor recreation in Montana generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending, creates 64,000 direct jobs and generates $1.5 billion in wages and salaries. It also contributes $403 million to state and local tax revenues that go to support public services.”

Looking ahead

The future of state parks is also clouded by an aging and less-active population, although Montanans statistically engage in more physical activities than residents of a lot of other states. So keeping people connected to parks, especially the young, is not only important to ensure citizen support for parks, but also to keep Montanans healthy.

“If in the next 30 years these outdoor resources are irrelevant, then we’ve lost something,” Van Genderen said.

That’s why Van Genderen and his staff are crafting the state parks’ next strategic plan with an eye for making it “much more targeted and focused on solutions.” The plan will be completed in time for the next legislative session in 2015. In addition to focusing on funding, Montana State Parks and its board will also be encouraging constituents to lobby in support of parks.

“We’re going to have to bring forward some hard conversations,” Van Genderen said. “We have a brand to protect.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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