As summertime visitation increases on Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, the rising cost of maintaining public access to the waterway is prompting concern among land managers who say the popular sites may fall into a state of desuetude.
With just five remaining state parks ringing Flathead Lake – the largest of which, Big Arm State Park, is slated for lease review early next year – the prospect of diminished public access on a lake that measures more than 27 miles long with 128 miles of shoreline, as well as the subsequent loss of an important revenue stream, is giving rise to apprehension among land managers.
“We are concerned that we may not be able to hang onto Big Arm. You just have to keep your fingers crossed,” Jerry Sawyer, who manages Flathead Lake’s state parks for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said.
The 217-acre park on Big Arm Bay is a popular launching point to access Wild Horse Island, and its 40 campsites and yurt rentals, nature trail, and facilities like flush toilets and coin-operated showers draw large crowds during the summer months.
As more visitors flock to Flathead Lake’s state parks, Sawyer says some are reaching carrying capacity.
“Access is pretty limited for a lake this size. There’s not a lot, and the last couple of years we have seen a big increase in day use at the parks,” Sawyer said. “And that is why we get so crowded this time of year and run out of parking. Because of the heat everyone is going to the lake and we have limited acreage and limited access. We really get hammered pretty good.”
The parks sit on state trust lands, so the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which leases the land to the FWP, is mandated to maximize their revenue by reappraising the land value, while a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies increases the fees by 2 percent annually.
“We have essentially just been renting Big Arm for quite some time,” Sawyer said.
When the lease was renegotiated at Elmo State Park, FWP couldn’t afford the increased rate and, although the state retained lease rights to a portion of the former state park and operates a seven-acre parcel as a fishing access site, more than 30 acres are unmaintained.
If Big Arm State Park met a similar fate, FWP officials said the loss of revenue could be problematic.
“One of the things that happened last go-round is we lost Elmo State Park because we could not afford the additional lease requirements,” Sawyer said. “[Big Arm] is our biggest revenue-generating park in the region and losing it would be terrible from a public recreation standpoint.”
FWP regional parks manager Dave Landstrom said the lease expires in February 2014, though officials are hopeful they can reach an agreement with DNRC.
“Obviously because the park is on Flathead Lake and there is not an abundance of public access on Flathead Lake, we really hope we can figure out a solution,” he said.
According to Montana State Parks spokeswoman Jennifer Lawson, “we have started started discussions with DNRC and are looking for common ground as to how to address the lease expiration.”
In 2012, Lawson said Big Arm State Park received 35,876 visits. Big Arm is also a popular takeoff point to Wild Horse Island State Park, which received 17,029 visits in 2012.
John Grassy of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the agency intends to use the memorandum of understanding as a “guiding document” during the negotiations. One possible outcome under the memorandum is a one-year extension of the current lease to allow for additional time to negotiate a deal.
Still, DNRC is constitutionally required to obtain the full-market value of a given activity on state trust lands in order to fulfill its obligation.
“At the end of the day, the FWP has its mandates and the DNRC has its mandates, but we are going to do what we always do in these situations, which is work out an agreement,” he said.
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