HELENA — A panel of lawmakers on Wednesday heard a plan to split the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission's duties by creating a new board to oversee state parks and recreation.
The new Parks and Recreation board would resemble the FWP commission, with five members appointed by the governor from different districts across the state.
An attempt to split the Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency in the 2011 legislative session failed because opponents found it too costly and complicated. This time, the proposal does not call for a split in the agency, but it would shift oversight of the agency's parks division to the new board.
The new board would review and approve parks and recreation spending, land acquisitions and land use, while the FWP commission — to be renamed the Fish and Wildlife commission — would continue to oversee issues related to fish and wildlife.
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency has not taken a position on the bill.
Supporters, which include several recreational groups, say the board would allow the parks division to emerge from its position as a minor player in the FWP commission's affairs. Too often, parks matters are overshadowed by more controversial topics, such as wolf and bison management, they said.
"Montana parks have become the redheaded stepchild of the most controversial agency in state government," Rep. Duane Ankney, a Republican from Colstrip and the bill's sponsor, told the House Natural Resources Committee.
Opponents of the proposal said a new board would create jurisdictional overlap and confusion, add another layer of bureaucracy amid calls to reduce government, and possibly take away funding game wardens now receive from the U.S. Coast Guard for water safety programs.
Of particular concern is a clause that says the new board would have jurisdiction over the waters next to state parks and be able to make enforcement rules now handled by FWP.
"We're not against having a new board for all the user groups out there. We have concerns about the kind of power you're going to give them," said George Golie, a lobbyist for the Montana Wildlife Federation.
The Natural Resources committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
Parks division administrator Chas Van Genderen said more than 2 million visitors went to Montana's 54 state parks last year.
The parks accounted for 1,600 tourism-related jobs and contributed $289 million in economic benefits around the state that year, he said, citing 2010 numbers.