Guest opinion: Let's protect treasures in Montana's 55 state parks

2014-07-27T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Let's protect treasures in Montana's 55 state parksBy TOM TOWE and MARY SEXTON The Billings Gazette
July 27, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Montana State Parks celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

When Gov. Steve Bullock appointed us to the new Montana Parks and Recreation Board about a year ago we began visiting our 55 state parks and discovered that we have some real treasures in the Treasure State.

Country Magazine recently called Makoshika one of the 10 “most magnificent, unheralded parks across America.” First People’s Buffalo Jump is also unique, showcasing some of our Native American heritage; to the people of Great Falls it is truly special. Or check out the cowboy who carved a beautiful picture of his girlfriend over 100 years ago in the sand stones at Medicine Rock.

In addition to some wonderful campgrounds and opportunities for water recreation, our state parks also feature seven National Historic Landmarks. Bannack (Montana’s first capital), Travelers’ Rest (the first archaeologically verified campsite of the Lewis and Clark Expedition), Pictograph Caves (featuring pictures by prehistoric hunters) and the Rosebud Battlefield (a battle that preceded the Little Bighorn by several days) are absolute necessities for history buffs.

Increased visitation proves Montanans enjoy the outdoors. At the same time demand on staff and park infrastructure is increasing. Many state parks could be more user friendly and offer more to the visitors.

Maintenance backlog

The Montana state park system is underfunded. Montana has more parks than any other Western state yet it spends less on parks than any other Western state, except North Dakota. North Dakota has only 13 state parks as opposed to our 55. The average Western state has 120 full-time employees. Montana has 65 permanent employees.

Our maintenance backlog needs funding attention. We need more visitor’s centers to help interpret our heritage sites. We need $1.4 million to put in an adequate fire protection system for Bannack and $2 million for a new electrical system at Lewis and Clark Caverns. There is no water or electricity at the camp sites at Makoshika.

The park system receives no general fund monies. It receives no hunting and fishing license dollars. Furthermore, with the $6 auto registration fee, park entrance in all 55 state parks is free for Montana residents.

The vehicle registration fee pays about 38 percent of the park system budget. Fees from out-of-state visitors and campgrounds bring in another 21 percent. A small but significant amount of the bed tax contributes another 15 percent. Coal tax trust income is 9 percent and motor boat and fuel decals make up 11 percent.

State parks are important to our economy. According to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research of the University of Montana, 2 million state park visitors bring in $289 million to local Montana economies in money spent by state park visitors every year. State parks sustain 1,600 tourism-related jobs.

Speak up on parks

We are going to use out best efforts to make our park system even better. We are also asking for citizen input. What do you think our state park system should look like 20 years from now?

Write to us at State Parks, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701 or email:parksboard@mt.gov. Your input is appreciated!

For more information about State Parks pick up a guide book called, MONTANA STATE PARKS, by Erin Madison and Kristen Inbody or download the official guide to Montana State Parks in the Pocket Ranger App.

Visit a State Park. Better yet, visit all of them. We look forward to seeing you outdoors at state parks this summer!

Tom Towe of Billings chairs the newly created Montana Parks and Recreation Board. Mary Sexton serves as vice chairwoman.

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

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