Bullock Parks in Focus

Gov. Steve Bullock joined the Montana Parks in Focus Commission in February as the panel met for the first time. The commission is set to deliver recommendations on funding and growing support for Montana State Parks this December.

Trails topped the list of amenities residents seek when visiting Montana State Parks, according to a new survey.

The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana surveyed nearly 6,200 Montanans from April through June, asking them how often they visit state parks, and why they’re going there. The institute released the results of the survey Wednesday ahead of a conference call with media.

“This is a large state, we have 55 state parks distributed from the far east to the far west, north and south,” said Ben Alexander, staffer for the governor-appointed Montana Parks in Focus Commission. “We have small state parks and large state parks. We have parks that are remote but also those adjacent to our cities and larger population centers. We wanted to get a sense for the amenities or the features residents are looking for at state parks.”

Naturally air conditioned cavern

Naturally air conditioned, the limestone caves at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park are lined with intricate stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites, and are electrically lighted and safe to visit.

The survey will provide data to park managers as well as Parks in Focus. Earlier this year following shakeups in parks’ and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ leadership, as well as attention from the Legislature and media about parks’ finances, Gov. Steve Bullock launched the commission. The 12-member panel is tasked with studying and making recommendations about the future of Montana’s park system, including implementing strategic planning, growing support and diversifying funding. The commission will meet four times before providing a report, with its last meeting scheduled for late September in Glendive.

The institute surveyed residents at gas stations across the state, approaching them and asking yes or no questions about amenities and use. The survey showed two-thirds of residents visited parks for day use with an average of 2.81 parks visited in the past year.

Why Montanans visit Montana State Parks

About nine in 10 visitors said trail use was a preferred reason for visiting state parks, followed by three-quarters identifying picnic shelters. Swimming areas, interpretive programs, visitor centers, flush toilets and boating facilities were all amenities enjoyed by more than half of respondents.

The survey did not ask about mode of trail travel, and whether visitors hiked, biked or were motorized users.

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“Montanans do enjoy their parks, whether it’s a lot in one given year or periodically through their years,” said Norma Nickerson, the institute’s director.

Montana State Parks' usage by age

The survey also looked at the preferences for different age ranges of park visitors.

“Each (age) grouping was significantly different in what they wanted, and in all instances they were never the same,” Nickerson said.

The youngest age range of 18-36 had the highest demand for trails, tent camping, biking and hiking sites, swimming areas and watercraft rentals. The oldest age range of 56 and over had the highest demand for RV camping, electrical hookups and WiFi. The 36-55 age range mostly fell in the middle of the two.

Interestingly, the survey noted little difference in preferred amenities between eastern and western Montana residents, said Angie Grove, Montana State Parks and Recreation Board chair. One possible reason trails received such high marks is efforts to link trail systems with communities or other public lands, she added.

“This independent assessment of our demand side of state parks is invaluable for the board’s perspective,” Grove said. “This is the kind of data we need moving forward when we need to look at our classification of state parks, and how we direct our limited funding or how we explore diversifying our funding sources.”

Residents are the primary users of state parks, making up 80 percent of day users and about two-thirds of campers, but Grove says she looks forward to seeing additional study about the needs and preferences of nonresidents.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin