Gazette opinion: Hidden gems: Montana state parks need attention

2013-08-19T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Hidden gems: Montana state parks need attention The Billings Gazette
August 19, 2013 12:00 am

Quick: Name the five parks in Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 5, which includes Yellowstone and surrounding counties in south-central Montana.

Hints: The parks offer opportunities for visiting archaeological sites, boating and fishing, black-tailed prairie dog viewing, and an exploration of the home of the last chief of the Crow Indians.

If you want to know about hunting and fishing in Montana, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks website is a bounty of information. It’s harder to find details about the state’s 54 parks.

Parks will soon be getting more attention. Acting on recommendations from an interim committee, the 2013 Legislature passed House Bill 24 to create a new State Parks and Recreation Commission. The law maintains a single department, but splits park oversight from the FWP commission. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, passed the House and Senate by wide margins and was signed into law on April 22 by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Last week, Bullock appointed the first five-member Park Commission. The law requires the governor to make the appointments from each of five districts, which are the same as the Fish and Wildlife Commission districts.

Bullock’s office and FWP announced his choices:

 Diane Conradi is a Whitefish attorney who co-founded Whitefish Legacy Partners, which focuses on community vision for conservation recreation and education.

 Mary Sexton is a Chouteau rancher, former county commissioner and director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

 Douglas Smith, of Dagmar, is a planner for Sheridan and Daniels counties.

 Jeff Welch, of Livingston, is president of Mercury CSC and an avid angler.

 Tom Towe is a Billings attorney and former state lawmaker who will serve as chairman. Towe is a founding member of Our Montana, which works to conserve scenic archaeological, historic and natural resources.

Unlike state fish and wildlife services, which are funded with hunting and fishing licenses and federal tackle and ammo sales taxes, Montana state parks are funded through vehicle registration fees. Although the $6 annual parks fee is optional with vehicle license renewals, nearly 80 percent of vehicle owners pay the fee, according to FWP Director Jeff Hagener.

That’s a good thing for state parks.

Vehicle fees are the No. 1 revenue source for the parks, Hagener said on a visit to Billings last week. The second biggest revenue source is user fees, such as camping, tours or admission paid by out-of-state visitors. State parks receive no general-fund money.

“This citizen board will have a sole focus on parks and recreation, to help guide us in strengthening our systems for the benefit of Montana’s families, communities and local economies,” said Chas Van Genderen, state parks administrator in Helena.

We look forward to seeing greater emphasis on getting Montanans in touch with their beautifully diverse state parks.

The names of the Region 5 state parks? Chief Plenty Coups, Cooney, Lake Elmo, Pictograph Cave and Prairie Dog Town.

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