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Montana’s 54 state parks are more popular than ever with visitors, but chronic funding shortages keep adding to a deferred maintenance backlog.

Several years ago, the Montana Legislature and governor tried to address the parks’ problems by creating a State Parks Board separate from the Fish and Wildlife Commission that decides hunting and fishing regulations. The aim was to give the often-neglected parks the attention needed.

But the parks board apparently was kept in the dark about aspects of the division’s finances. The 2019 Legislature “found” millions of dollars that the parks hadn’t spent and diverted it from park needs. Gov. Steve Bullock asked for some park board member resignations last year, and removed Chairman Tom Towe of Billings who refused to resign. The reconstituted board has met just once. Meanwhile, the parks division was without an administrator for about a year before Beth Shumate was hired in November.

Budget and funding are top priorities for both Shumate and Fish Wildlife and Parks Department Director Martha Wilson, as Tom Kuglin of the Helena Independent Record reported recently. The parks have an annual budget of about $8 million and a $22 million maintenance backlog.

Bullock created a commission this month to recommend solutions after holding four public meetings this year. He directed the Parks in Focus Commission to propose strategies that would:

  • Develop diversified revenue streams.
  • Grow strategic public-private partnerships.
  • Build support for parks within FWP, with parks advocates and with state and local community leaders.

The parks’ biggest revenue source is the optional $6 fee on annual vehicle registrations. About 80 percent of vehicle owners opt to pay the fee that provides free admission to all state parks for Montana residents. But that fee provides only about a third of the park’s operating budget and nothing to shrink the backlog of maintenance.

Montana State Parks have been stuck for years, like an unwary visitor on one of the many unpaved or potholed park roads. The 12 people Bullock appointed to the Parks in Focus Commission represent a broad cross section of Montana tourism, conservation, academic, business and health care professionals. State Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, is serving, along with Dave Galt, former executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, and Mark Aagenes of the Nature Conservancy. Two Montana State Parks Board members are on the commission: Angie Grove, of Helena, who was a legislative auditor for 28 years; and Jeff Welch, of Livingston, founder of MERCURY csc and a leading member of Business for Montana Outdoors.

The Montana State Park Board has three other bright, capable members: Base Camp owner Scott Brown, of Billings, who represents the southeast region; Betty Stone, manager of Glasgow’s Cottonwood Inn; and Mary Sheehy Moe, of Great Falls, former deputy commissioner for higher education and former state legislator.

Bullock has assembled two panels of good advisers. The vacancies in FWP and parks division top leadership have been filled. The stage is set for success — if the commissioners and the governor listen carefully to Montanans and work creatively across regions and party lines. To keep up the parks we love, Montana needs a plan that a majority of residents and their legislators will support.