HELENA — The director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has ordered the agency to return about $25,000 to an account used to benefit the Smith River after a conservation organization complained about how the money was spent.
The Independent Record reports that Jeff Hagener issued the order last week after a complaint by the Pat Barnes Missouri River Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The group in a letter to Hagener in October said about $105,000 from the Smith River Corridor Enhancement Account was misspent on items other than conservation efforts as required by law.
The group said $43,390 was spent on a storage building, $3,430 on recycling containers, $51,631 on replacement latrines and a park kiosk, and $8,850 on road maintenance.
“We don’t believe the expenditures meet the letter of the law or its intent,” wrote Garrett Fawaz, the group’s president. “The focus of the law is for conservation, restoration and protection, not for storage or equipment or recycling.”
About 6,660 people applied for a permit to float the river last year, with just more than 1,000 actually getting one. The float is one of the most popular in the state.
Money collected as recreational and commercial user fees, according to the law, must be used to “protect and enhance the integrity of the natural and scenic beauty of the Smith waterway and its recreational, fisheries and wildlife values through the lease or acquisition of property.”
Hagener, in a letter to the group, said most of the $105,000 the agency spent met legal requirements.
“Well-maintained roads are important in allowing good access to the river,” Hagener wrote. “Good sanitary facilities are a must to deal with human wastes. A maintenance/storage building is necessary to store and protect (Parks and Fisheries) equipment from the elements and theft.”
But he also said, “it is a stretch to say that the recycling containers were necessary to enhance and protect the corridor.” That led to his ordering the account be reimbursed $25,000.
Fawaz said he appreciated the response from the director.
“I think his letter was a fair response and gives us a good position to start discussions,” Fawaz said. “I’m glad to see he agreed to reimburse some of the costs. It’s a great start, but we’re still interested in talking to him about the other items.”