In the rugged badlands of Eastern Montana lies a diamond in the rough, Hell Creek State Park.
The campground along the southern shore of Fort Peck Reservoir annually attracts around 30,000 visitors to one of the least populated counties in Montana. Visitors travel hours from across the state, region and nation for one common reason: to fish for large walleye, northern pike, lake trout, smallmouth bass and even chinook salmon.
“The chance here is that every cast could be a giant,” said Joe Mounts, a Thermopolis, Wyoming, angler. “It’s the best fishing in the West.”
Mounts was joined by several suntanned friends at the park’s fish cleaning station on a recent sweltering weekday night, filleting walleye for a dinner of bacon-wrapped fish, cream cheese and jalapenos. Other campers bring freezers and vacuum sealers to ensure their catch remains fresh for the ride home or in anticipation of a group fish fry. Ice in a cooler won’t cut it for these fishing aficionados.
Despite such glowing endorsements, after 67 years of improving its facilities at Hell Creek, Montana State Parks has initiated an exit strategy. Because the park’s expenses continually outpace its income, over the next two years the agency is hoping to train the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe to run the campground and its affiliated amenities spread across 337 acres.
As part of the deal, the state will also shed its ties to park sub-lessees Clint and Deb Thomas, who operate the Hell Creek Marina, motel and gas pumps on 55 acres of the park.
“Our goal is to make it seamless and keep it open for the people who need it,” said Hank Worsech, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Anglers and campers interviewed for this story don’t mind if the state leaves, provided the Thomases continue to operate the marina. Many of these recreationists have tales of how Clint has repaired a broken motor, pulled them out of mud or even rescued them when they’ve lost ATVs through the ice in winter.
“I know it’s good if it can keep Clint running this place,” said Clay Negaard, who grew up in nearby Jordan and whose family has a cabin close to the state park.
To ease and speed the transition, Worsech invited leaders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Omaha, Nebraska, to visit Hell Creek on June 3. The Corps is in charge of all the land surrounding the 134-mile-long lake. This includes the state park, which is located 26 dusty miles north of Jordan, the nearest community. Helicoptering in after an aerial reconnaissance, Col. Mark Himes, commander and district engineer for the Corps, said his agency’s goal is to move the process forward.
“We’re looking forward to opening the lines of communication and figuring out a way ahead,” he said while meeting with a handful of locals in the shade before touring the area.
“I don’t think this is difficult to resolve,” said Sheila Newman, chief of operations for all of the Corps’ lakes and dams in the region.
Himes and Newman, who are relatively new to their positions, should be able to provide “fresh eyes” to help solve any hang-ups in the transition, she said.
Following the trip, Newman said the Corps had resolved its issues with the Thomases regarding a previous shoreline dredging violation allowing the family's lease agreement with the state to proceed. That document was signed on Thursday, June 10, she said.
Such comments sound good to Clint Thomas, who has operated the marina since the fall of 2001.
“Everyone says it’s going good but nobody has put it in writing yet,” Thomas said.
He’s a bit gun shy when it comes to government oversight. Too many times what one Corps lake manager has told him gets changed when there’s a new administration, he said. That’s been the case with the state parks, as well, where as a sub-lessee he’s dealt with different Montana parks directors and their staff as the agency has vacillated between saying it will leave, then stay at Hell Creek.
“It’s been a sh** show,” he said. “The stress is unbelievable. It’s almost killed us.”
The anxiety caused by citations for violations of state and Corps regulations has caused him and his wife financial and emotional distress, he added. Amid the disputes, he’s taken on other jobs to stay afloat, everything from farming and ranching to hunting and trapping.
Thomas said inspections conducted when politicians are around have been friendly, but as soon as they are gone “it’s a bloodbath.” That’s saying something considering that Thomas is no stranger to hard times. In 2005 the marina burned down. A year later, after accidentally severing the artery in his leg with a broadhead while archery hunting, he nearly died. In the years that followed Thomas worked through record low and then high water years at the reservoir.
The Corps and state have defended their oversight of Thomas, saying it has been necessary to ensure public health and to protect the environment. Whether having the Little Shell Tribe take over will make the Thomases’ relationship less volatile is uncertain. The tribe has said it would continue to sublease to the family, just as the state does now.
Thomas is hopeful but reserved. He’d like to get a 20-year lease so he can go to the bank for a loan to fix up the marina.
Although the state has plans to leave, in the interim it has negotiated a two-year no-cost lease with the Corps and an option to renew at one-year intervals. However, Worsech said he’d like to see a tribal member shadowing the state park manager as soon as possible to learn about the site’s operations and infrastructure. The goal is for the tribe to take over the lease when the state leaves, although the Little Shell would have to submit a new application to the Corps.
Gerald Gray, tribal first vice-chairman, said he was hopeful the visit by the Corps’ Omaha staff would result in the Little Shell receiving a memorandum of understanding.
Like Thomas, however, he’s seen nothing in writing yet.
The transition plan will need to be initiated by the state and worked out between FWP, the Little Shell Tribe and the Corps, Newman said. As part of that, the tribe will need to develop a long-term management plan for the area if they want a lease that exceeds the 10 years originally offered to FWP, the Corps administrator added.
The tribe did submit an application to the Corps to operate the park this year, but the Corps awarded the lease to the state. Montana State Parks officials said the agency applied to allow time for the transition to the tribe. The action took place at the last-minute as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks — under Worsech’s new leadership — was slow to address the situation. With the lease expiring at the end of April, the Montana State Parks Board was asked to approve the deal only four days beforehand.
Parks board member Mary Moe, of Great Falls, criticized the late nature of the request as well as the fact that she and other board members had not seen any of the agreements in writing. In an interview last week, however, Moe said she understands the difficulties that occur when a new administration takes over the governor’s office and the FWP director is new. In the wake of the board’s May meeting Moe said she feels more informed about the situation and believes the state is on the right track to ensure the park remains a stable resource for visitors and the region.
Tom Shoush, Hell Creek State Park manager, is dedicated to ensuring the park continues to be a pleasant place for campers and anglers no matter the politics that envelop the area.
“I’m not here for the big fight,” he said.
Shoush moved to Hell Creek two years ago as the “capstone” to his career with the agency. That was after 20 years at Makoshika State Park, on the outskirts of Glendive, where he served as second in command. When he interviewed for the Hell Creek position, Montana State Parks’ management was still focused on a long-term presence there. Now his future at the park is uncertain.
If that includes training someone from the Little Shell Tribe how to operate the park, he said he will be professional and courteous before stepping down.
For his part, Thermopolis angler Joe Mounts is hopeful the tribe does take over. After a 20-year career in the military, he said, “I’m a firm believer that anything you can get out of the hands of the government is a good idea.”