Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks needs to accelerate its efforts to have “one vision, one agency” for all three divisions.
That’s the first draft recommendation of the Parks in Focus Commission appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock to strengthen and improve the state’s beleaguered park system. The 12 commission members were named in January and tasked with making recommendations by year’s end.
The panel is inviting public comment on the draft through Nov. 7.
We urge Montanans who use our state parks to take the time to look at the nine pages of draft recommendations and comment to the panel of business people, researchers, educators and private nonprofit leaders. State Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, is the only lawmaker on the panel.
The recommendations address two broad areas of concern: needed changes in department organization and suggestions for securing more resources for the division responsible for the 55 parks that logged about 2.6 million visitors last year.
The commission recognized that parks aren’t fully aligned with fish and wildlife operations. The regions for parks and FW aren’t even the same. The Montana Legislature and Bullock created a separate State Parks and Recreation Board five years ago to address the concern that parks received short shrift in the department. But the volunteer board alone can’t resolve the division’s extensive problems, which continued as top FWP and parks management turned over in the past few years.
“Parks staff are dedicated, thoughtful, passionate and severely constrained by a lack of resources and outdated systems,” the Parks in Focus draft says. “Staffing levels in the Parks Division are profoundly insufficient, with employees stretched to the limit and morale low."
“Parks lacks the business focus necessary to advocate for new investment, build partnerships and balance revenues with expenses,” the draft says. “Parks must develop business strategies and automate the way it tracks maintenance costs, infrastructure investments and budget revisions.”
“Revenue and capacity deficits are crippling the ability of parks to deliver on its mission in almost every way, including public health and safety, maintenance and infrastructure, stewardship of fragile resources and programming for the public,” the draft says.
The Parks Division needs champions. The draft names the Montana State Parks Foundation as the logical partner and potential leader in “creating a broad, engaged movement for parks.”
Engaging the state Legislature is crucial as is a strong focus on financial accountability and transparency. The draft suggests that a bipartisan state parks caucus could increase attention to park issues.
The draft lists many possibilities for generating more park funds, some of which would require legislative changes:
- Partnering with more concessionaires.
- Increasing user fees, which presently cover 21 percent of the budget.
- Raising the voluntary $6 parks fee paid with annual light vehicle registrations. This fee generates a third of the Parks Division revenue.
- Increasing private gifts and potentially create a parks endowment through the Montana State Parks Foundation.
- Expanding friend of the parks groups to be significant revenue generators.
If you want more camping spots, well-maintained trails, picnic facilities, clean restrooms and fewer potholes and overgrown weeds in your state parks, now’s the time to say so.
If you are concerned about preserving the rich cultural and natural treasures in our state parks, join the Parks in Focus discussion.
The draft and other information from Parks in Focus may be viewed at www.chartinganewtomorrow.com/parks-in-focus. An online comment form also can be found at that link. The Parks in Focus Commission is scheduled to meet again on Dec. 14 at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls.
Admission to our state parks is free for Montana residents, but we must figure out better ways to manage and pay for these parks we love.