Montana State Parks will take more time to gather information and seek public comment on its proposal to give up management of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near Three Forks.
The state has never before dropped a state park.
The proposal prompted a lengthy discussion at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting on Thursday in Helena, at which several people said it was a bad idea to abandon the park.
“It’s premature to take this to the public,” said Chere Jiusto, director of the Montana Preservation Alliance.
Created in 1966, the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is marked by limestone cliffs east of the Madison River and only a few miles south of Interstate 90. American Indians used the site for 2,000 years, as recently as 200 years ago, as a place to drive stampeding bison off the cliffs. At the base of the cliffs, the animals were butchered for meat, their hides treated for clothing and bones used to create tools.
The tribes built rock walls atop the cliffs to funnel bison toward the edge. At the base, tepee rings and bones have been excavated by archaeologists. The site was used by many tribes, including the Shoshone, Salish, Crow and Blackfeet.
At the base of the cliff, interpretive panels now outline the history of the site. There is a trail to the top of the cliffs. The property is commonly used by school groups, is mentioned in the state’s native education curriculum and is advertised in tourist publications in the greater Bozeman area.
The park is open year-round. There is no charge for state residents to visit since parks are funded through automobile license fees. Overnight stays are not allowed.
Give it back
The state parks division had proposed ceding the property back to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which owns most of the 638.4 acres of land. That proposal came after the DNRC asked FWP to pay $4,272 a year to lease the property, with a 2 percent annual increase. DNRC arrived at the lease amount as 5 percent of the value of the land, figured at $200 an acre. No formal appraisal was conducted.
The DNRC didn’t realize it owned the property, which has been under FWP management since 1966, until a 2008 audit. By law, the DNRC is required to make money from state trust lands.
“We had thought an exchange had gone through in the 1960s,” said Mary Sexton, DNRC director.
The parks division estimated it pays $15,000 a year to manage and maintain the site, which sees fewer than 2,000 visitors a year and raises only about $1,800 in direct fees for use from nonresidents’ day use and commercial visitation.
“We’re stretching resources thinly and trying to put those resources in class A parks,” said Chas Van Genderen, parks division director.
The parks division collects visitation numbers at 51 of 54 state parks. Of the 51, the Madison Buffalo Jump ranks 47th for visits. In 2012, the park saw 4,500 visitors, up 18 percent over the 3,800 visitors in 2011.
The commission wrestled with the wording of its action, since it had many questions about the charge that DNRC had arrived at, allowing further public comment and gathering information for the commission and public to analyze.
Van Genderen acknowledged that the parks division needed more time to examine the issue.
“We haven’t been in this position before,” he said.
In the past three years, FWP has decommissioned the Parker Homestead and turned back other lands under easement or lease to DNRC, including Fort MacGinnis and Citadel Rock, to reduce the size of the park system. Those actions saved the parks division only $5,000.
The $15,000 spent on managing Madison Buffalo Jump State Park goes mainly to staff time — 271 hours for maintenance work and the park manager’s post. Money also is spent on repair, latrine upkeep, supplies, travel and weed spraying.
Jiusto recommended that the commission delay action until a bill in the next Legislature for creating a separate parks commission is approved. She said as part of that commission’s new actions, commissioners should order an accounting of all parks and operations.
If FWP does give the park back to DNRC, Sexton said, the property could be leased for cattle grazing or the agency could explore a land exchange with FWP or an outright easement purchase. She said another group may also step forward to lease it, such as a nonprofit group or university interested in the site’s archaeological value. If the land is returned to DNRC, it would still remain open to public access for those who have purchased a state lands permit.
FWP would also have to decide what to do with the 20.9 acres of the park that it owns.
Mark Hinton, who grew up in Townsend and often visited the site as a child, said he sees the park as one place that never changes when he now comes to Montana from his Minnesota home.
“When I go back to Montana, everything has changed but that has remained pretty much the same,” he said.
He said that Europe may have sacred cathedrals, but Montana has sacred sites like the Madison Buffalo Jump.
“It’s always been, for me, the place I’ve been most connected to,” he said. “That’s one of the places I always go to visit.”