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Michael Punke, Parks in Focus Commission member

MICHAEL PUNKE

The governor-appointed Parks in Focus Commission is now past the midpoint of our year-long term. If you haven’t heard of our group, we are a citizen commission tasked with finding new opportunities to strengthen Montana’s State Parks system. As a writer, Montana’s landscapes and history have been the muse for everything I've ever written. As an outdoorsman, I consider our state parks as some the great treasures of our Treasure State.

Our citizen group has come a long way since we began this public process back in January. We are making good progress and are on track to provide robust recommendations later this year to strengthen Montana’s ailing state parks system. You can read about some of our initial findings in our situation assessment that we have posted at chartinganewtomorrow.com.

Our assessment of the problems plaguing Montana’s State Parks is largely consistent with past reviews, but it’s also informed by new information and by the public process we have been driving. The Parks in Focus Commission has spent the past half-year conducting surveys of park employees, working with government entities to understand the fiscal side of things, and we have hosted two well-attended public meetings to gather input and direction from the public.

Our initial assessment is unanimous: Montana’s State Parks system is in crisis. Steps have been taken in the right direction over the past year to right the ship, but there is substantial work left to do.

The good news is we have discovered plenty of opportunities to fix and improve what we already have. But to get there, we need to take an honest look at both the short game and the long game.

In the short game, we are talking in terms of small patches and Band Aids to keep state parks from avoiding a crisis. The big issue is making sure they have enough resources over the next few years to keep the ship afloat. Parks has hit its limit in providing more for less, as budgets decline and visitation grows. We absolutely cannot afford for state parks to lose any further funding in the next few years. There is nothing left to cut. State parks’ entire budget is already dedicated to basic staffing and operations with little to no resources to address those long-simmering maintenance and infrastructure needs.

However, fixing our parks is not just about short-term funding. It’s about the long-game — transforming state parks into a highly efficient, relevant, and inspiring proposition. This will take some time. And it will take new public-private partnerships and stronger connections between parks, nearby communities, and our most passionate park champions. We can and should build these connections. After all, parks are not just assets or places. They are gateways to vivid experiences that nine in ten Montanans enjoy. They connect us all to our shared legacy and passion for the outdoors.

Our pending commission recommendations will be focused on how to build a new vision for state parks, accelerate the positive change that is already happening in Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, and expand the scope of public-private partnerships. We need to make sure that state parks is structured so that future investments in our public trails, waterways, and historical and recreational amenities give Montanans the most bang for our dollars.

We invite you to join that conversation. Parks in Focus will be hosting our third public meeting on Sept. 28 at Makoshika State Park near Glendive. We encourage you to learn more, join the conversation, and read our initial situation assessment at chartinganewtomorrow.com.

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Michael Punke is the author of The Revenant and other books about Montana history.

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