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A New ‘Roadmap’ for State Parks

By Beacon Staff

On the heels of the busiest summer on record for outdoor recreation on public land, efforts are underway to identify priorities and issues within the Montana State Parks system and on all public land.

The Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), which will be completed next year, will provide state and federal administrators a “roadmap for public recreation across the state,” including funding directives and supply and demand needs for public resources and facilities.

“SCORP will provide a view of how we’re managing recreation in the state of Montana,” Chas Van Genderen, administrator for Montana State Parks, said. “How do we manage better? That’s what we’re trying to understand.”

At the same time, a significant change involving state parks could also be proposed in the upcoming Legislature, which convenes in January. Van Genderen said a bill is moving forward that could create a separate commission specifically for recreation decisions. A report from the Environmental Quality Council, titled “HJR 32: A Study of State Parks, Outdoor Recreation and Heritage Resource Programs,” recommends the creation of a parks commission separate from the current Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission, which meets once a month and oversees recreation and wildlife decisions.

According to the EQC report, published in October for the upcoming Legislature, “a review of FWP Commission meetings between March 2011 and March 2012 found that wildlife management issues dominated the agenda.”

“The state parks system is overshadowed by controversial wildlife issues that dominate the attention of its mother agency, the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks,” the EQC report reads.

The report continues, “It is fully appropriate to create a separate governing body to oversee state parks and other recreational programs administered by the Parks Division, regardless of which agency the division is in, in order to provide a dedicated forum for and greater discussion of parks and recreation policies, issues, and access.”

According to the EQC report, a separate state parks board could consist of seven members meeting six times a year and costing roughly $9,000. The cost would be dependent on the number of members and how much it would cost to cover members’ travel reimbursements. Currently Montana is one of six states that combine fish, wildlife and parks commissions. The others are South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and Colorado.

“All of Montana’s state parks and outdoor recreational and heritage resources deserve more support,” the report reads. “The state has untold gems that are being neglected and may be tarnished or even lost without a greater commitment and attention by the Legislature and the people of Montana.”

When it comes to selling itself, Montana has greatly succeeded by showcasing its outdoor amenities. Since 2010, when the state’s tourism department launched its award-winning national ad campaign, images of mountain goats skirting through Glacier National Park and hikers gazing across idyllic panoramas have been displayed on buses, trains and billboards from coast to coast.

Tourism has risen every year since, with more than 10.9 million out-of-state travelers visiting in 2012, a 3.2 percent increase over previous year. Out-of-state visitors spent $3.2 billion this year, a 15 percent increase over 2011, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Those numbers are expected to continue increasing in 2013. Visitors to state parks specifically generated $289 million for local and state economies in 2010, according to the latest survey by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

At the heart of Montana’s tourism industry — and ad campaign — are the state’s outdoor attractions. State park sites drew their highest total visitation on record — nearly 1.3 million — this summer and overall visitation this year could match or exceed the 2009 record of two million, according to Montana State Parks.

“There’s just no denying that right now (park sites are) really the brightest show in town in terms of providing economic activity in the valley,” said Dave Landstrom, the Region 1 Parks Manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The 13 state parks in the Flathead Valley consistently draw the highest combined visitation. Kalispell area sites in Region 1 drew 303,135 visitors, collectively, according state statistics.

“This is a recreation mecca,” Landstrom said. “Obviously (state parks are) greatly needed and greatly loved facilities as evidenced by the visitation.”

The SCORP plan is a regular requirement to receive recreational funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This year Montana’s LWCF grant applications totaled more than $398,000 in funding requests, according to the state.

The SCORP advisory committee includes members from Montana State Parks, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, Montana Recreation and Parks Association, Montana Office of Tourism, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the University of Montana.

A SCORP draft will be released for public comment next summer.

“We need to raise the awareness of these parks and recreation issues,” Van Genderen said, adding, “It ties back to families creating strong memories, and the health of our communities. And parks and recreation are part of this tourism economy. We need to continue to focus on those things.”

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