At 3 p.m. on Thursday, the Montana House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that is a key part of finally starting to take good care of our state parks.
Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, would authorize the optional park fee on annual vehicle registrations to be increased from $6 to $9. The fee would still be optional, and vehicle owners could simply deduct the fee before they paid the registration.
This optional fee has been $6 since 2003 when it was established, and entrance fees for Montanans were eliminated at all of our state parks. This fee provides about a third of state parks' annual funding, making it the largest revenue source for upkeep, staffing and park improvements.
As most Gazette readers know, our state parks have been significantly underfunded for decades, allowing deferred maintenance to grow larger each year. Think about the potholes you've seen in parks and access roads, the limited programming, short seasons and hours, lack of potable water at campsites and scarcity of flush toilets.
Last year, Gov. Steve Bullock appointed the Parks in Focus Commission to assess the state parks and to make recommendations on improving management, efficiency and funding. The commission recommendations were adopted by the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board in December. A boost in public funding is only one factor in recommendations that include more private sector engagement with volunteers and grants while revamping operations and policies.
Regarding funding, the Parks in Focus Commission report said: "Revenue and capacity deficiencies 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."
SB24 passed the Senate on a vote of 33-16. Thanks to all the senators who voted to support Montana State Parks, especially those who represent parts of Yellowstone County: Duane Ankney, Jen Gross, Margie MacDonald, Mary McNally and Tom Richmond.
The fiscal note for SB24 estimates that it will increase dedicated state parks funds by $2 million per year with that money to be divided between parks, fishing access sites and trails. The Parks in Focus survey of more than 6,000 Montanans found that trails are the most popular park amenity across all age groups in all parts of our state.
A full 77 percent of Montanans choose to contribute $6 to state parks with their annual light vehicle registration; it is expected that relatively few vehicle owners will opt out of paying $9 when the fee hasn't been raised in 16 years.
The optional fee as SB24 proposes to modify it will cost very little in administration, so every dollar collected will go toward parks, trails and fishing access sites. No money or staff time need be spent on collecting entrance fees or enforcing a requirement for a park pass or decal. Especially with our state parks severely understaffed, it is crucial to keep administrative and enforcement expenses as low as possible while still protecting public safety and property.
Please contact your Montana state representative to urge support for SB24. Reps. Sharon Stewart Peregoy and Sue Vinton, both of Yellowstone County, will be voting on SB24 in committee. Messages for them and other representatives may be left at the legislative desk at 406-444-4800 or online through leg.mt.gov by clicking on "message a legislator."