State Parks Agency Drafts New Vision

By Beacon Staff

Outdoor recreation plays a key role in Montana’s heritage and tourism economy but lacks adequate guidance and funding on a statewide level, according to a new report compiled from local, state and federal agencies’ data.

The Montana State Parks Department is updating its strategy for maintaining outdoor recreation opportunities like parks and trails with a new guiding document called the Montana Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP).

Last week at its meeting in Kalispell, the newly assembled Montana State Parks and Recreation Board opened public comment on the 131-page draft plan, which can be viewed online at stateparks.mt.gov. The scoping process is 30 days.

In a collaborative effort that included an advisory committee representing federal, state and local recreation managers and members of the tourism industry, state officials developed the plan as a roadmap for the next five years, providing insight into emergent trends, challenges and resources. SCORP is also required for the state to apply for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal grant program that provides financial support for community recreation projects.

Montana receives roughly $300,000 in federal funding per year for local community grants through LWCF. Since 1985, the state of Montana has received roughly $38 million in LWCF appropriations.

“It is imperative for local, state and federal recreation managers to work collaboratively to create a vibrant future for Montana’s outdoor recreation heritage, where Montanans live healthier lifestyles, the economic well being of communities is sustained, and providing high-quality recreational opportunities comes second to none,” said Maren Murphy of Montana State Parks, who led the SCORP development.

Between 2008-2012, visitation at Glacier National Park increased 16.4 percent. State parks visitation rose 10 percent. Off-highway vehicle registration has tripled in that time while fishing is up 5 percent. Last year 77 percent of Montana households reported participating in walking and biking in the state’s 38 million acres of public land.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. Forest Service’s recreational budget in Montana has decreased 48 percent since 2009, according to state officials. The Bureau of Land Management’s recreational budget, which is only 5 percent of its total budget, has dropped 35 percent since 2008. The National Park Service’s budget is 22 percent, or nearly $700 million, less than a decade ago in today’s dollars.

Deferred maintenance of facilities and other outdoors resources is a primary challenge among agencies at local, state and federal levels as the backlog continues to grow, according to the report.

“Without regular maintenance and improvements, our recreational, natural, cultural and heritage resources are vulnerable to damage, and we risk losing the very assets that people come to Montana to enjoy,” the draft SCORP states.

SCORP highlights recommended priorities for managers and Montana communities, including improving access to outdoor recreation resources, facilities and trails; seeking additional grant opportunities; encouraging the development and expansion of new or existing alternative transportation systems to parks and other open spaces, including via bicycle trails; and promoting and supporting programs that connect children and all residents to recreation opportunities.

Fred Dauber fishes from the end of a boat dock at Big Arm State Park. – File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

In many areas of the state, recreation managers are struggling to meet the growing demand of users, according to the SCORP plan.

The document reads, “Our recreation landscapes and facilities are not being adequately managed or funded at a sustainable level to meet the high quality that residents and visitors expect and deserve.”

The SCORP plan draws information from the latest Public Recreational Use Survey, a comprehensive census gathered by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. The latest survey showed 76 percent of non-resident visitors to Northwest Montana participated in scenic driving. The other top activities included: day hiking (50 percent), nature photography (48 percent), wildlife watching (45 percent), and car/RV camping (37 percent).

Among Montana residents, non-motorized boating was the most popular activity, followed by beach activities, golfing, motorized boating and birding. Other popular activities for residents included wildlife watching, scenic driving and camping, according to the 2012 survey.

“We’re trying to develop a compelling vision for future recreation in Montana,” Murphy told board members last week.

For more information about the draft SCORP, visit stateparks.mt.gov.

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