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Volunteers works on a section of the Continental Divide Trail

Volunteers work on a section of the Continental Divide Trail in June during a trail work project facilitated by the Montana Wilderness Association. The Montana Trails Coalition released a report, “Montana Trails in Crisis,” which details a nearly $300 million backlog of trail maintenance needs on public lands and insufficient federal grant funding for viable projects.

The Montana Legislature passed a bill Tuesday raising the optional fee from $6 to $9 on vehicle registrations to fund Montana State Parks, fishing access sites and a new trails grant program.

Senate Bill 24, brought by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, enjoyed extensive support among interest groups and individuals as it worked through the legislative process. It has also seen opposition from some lawmakers opposed to the fee as an opt-out rather than opt-in funding source.

Sen. Terry Gauthier (R-Helena)

Sen. Terry Gauthier

The bill raises the existing fee by $3 with parks, fishing access sites and Virginia City and Nevada City seeing a bump in funding. A portion of the fee would also go to creation of a new state trail and recreational facility grant program, which supporters say is needed to fund increasing demand for trail projects. Trail users were heavily invested in the bill, saying that the uncertainty of federal grant funding for trail maintenance and construction created a void the state could fill.

Gauthier noted that the bill reflects an inflationary increase for a fee that has remained stagnant since 2003. The Helena Republican cited his personal ties to state parks and trails for bringing the bill, with a coalition of motorized and nonmotorized trail users in support.

After initially being tabled in committee, Gauthier successfully blasted SB 24 to the Senate floor and passed it through the body. In the House, it also moved along comfortably.

“Senate Bill 24 is about investing in our outdoor heritage,” said Tom Welch, R-Dillion, who carried the bill on the House floor. “… There is a significant need for funding.”

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Welch implored other lawmakers to support the bill, saying the investment in infrastructure would bring more money to communities and that state parks are important gathering places for Montana families.

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Rep. Peggy Webb, R-Billings, attempted to amend SB 24 to change the fee from and opt-out to an opt-in. The opt-out funding has troubled several Republicans this session who feel many registering their vehicles do not realize the funding is optional.

“There’s a lot of people paying for this that didn’t intend to,” she said.

Welch asked fellow lawmakers to vote the amendment down, saying it would have a “devastating” effect on the state parks budget without a means of restoring funding. The amendment went down on a vote of 38-62.

On Tuesday, the House passed SB 24 on a vote of 65-31.

State parks, the new trails grants and other measures funded in the bill will not see immediate funding. That cash generated will accrue until the 2021 session when Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will request a legislative appropriation to spend it.

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

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