Planning a New Future for Montana’s State Parks

While visitation and demand increases at public recreation sites, the state is struggling with inadequate funding and deferred maintenance

By Dillon Tabish

Lone Pine State Park. Wayfarers. Wild Horse Island.

This scenic area is home to many of Montana’s most popular state parks.

Through September, more than 500,000 people visited state parks in Northwest Montana, a slight bump over last year, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks data.

Statewide, the system of public parks attracted 1.94 million people, 3 percent more than a year ago, meaning 2014 is on pace to be the fourth consecutive record-breaking year for visitation.

With a total of 55 public state parks, Montana has the largest parks system compared to neighboring states, including Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Yet the operating budget and staffing levels are among the lowest in the region, creating a dilemma for managers hoping to maintain resources and infrastructure.

To address longstanding needs and challenges at these popular public recreation sites, the Montana State Parks division is proposing a significant makeover of the entire system that would change the strategy for managing and funding sites and services. It could also change the way future generations of visitors experience the state’s wide array of public parks.

Montana State Parks has developed a draft strategic plan for the next five years that would rearrange the system’s funding structure, potentially expand recreation opportunities, such as ziplining and yurt camping, and address maintenance issues that have been deferred for years.

“Looking forward to the next five years, the division is at an important crossroads,” the plan states in its introduction.

The 34-page plan was unveiled in early October and is open to public comment through Nov. 19.

“The state parks system is celebrating 75 years right now. It’s operating on a very old strategic plan,” said Dave Landstrom, regional manager for Montana State Parks. “This is intended to be a pretty bold and specific five-year plan aimed at a number of pretty specific goals.”

A primary part of the new strategy would seek to close the gap between what the public wants and the level of funding for recreation and state parks.

The state parks division would pursue dedicated funding sources, including amending the vehicle registration fee to be mandatory and seeking a statutory increase; redirecting a portion of other state funding sources, such as an increase in the coal tax or earnings from the lottery; and establishing a new funding source from excise taxes related to non-consumptive uses, according to the plan.

Montana’s budget for managing and maintaining its 55 public parks is $7.5 million annually, the second lowest in the region behind only North Dakota, which has 13 state parks and an annual budget of $6.7 million. Idaho manages its 30 parks on a $16 million budget; Utah manages its 43 parks with $28.2 million and Wyoming manages its 40 parks with $10.8 million.

Access to all of Montana’s state parks is free to residents, while out-of-state visitors pay a $6 fee per car to enter the parks. A $6 fee charged when residents license their vehicle provides the major funding for operation of the parks, at 38 percent of the annual budget. Park fees amount to the second largest percentage, at 21. Another 15 percent comes from the lodging facility use tax that the division shares with the Montana Office of Tourism. A tax on motorboat fuel accounts for 11 percent of the funding, following by coal tax (9 percent).

“We’re trying to be more business-like. We’re not there to make a profit but we’re there to be self sufficient and this plan really deals with that,” Landstrom said.

In a survey of regional offices across Montana, park managers said they have struggled to maintain resources and provide consistent experiences at sites across the state, according to the new plan. The system lacks adequate funding and staffing, as well as the necessary capital investment to protect resources and park infrastructure, the survey said.

“Deferred maintenance is a massive issue,” Landstrom said.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal grant program that provides financial support for community recreation projects, has decreased substantially in recent years and is due to expire in January 2015. Since 1985, the state of Montana has received roughly $38 million in LWCF appropriations.

The reduction in LWCF monies has shifted the burden onto the state and led to unaddressed issues related to upgrades and maintenance at state parks, according to managers.

“That’s what we’re going to struggle with massively over the next decade — those systems that are becoming aged and going to fail,” Landstrom said. “I’m deeply concerned about our maintenance backlog.”

The state plans to also seek other sources of support, including increasing the number of concessionaires in state parks and fostering more private investment and philanthropy that would aim to raise $4 million by 2020.

While funding sources are sought, the state also plans to prioritize its most significant sites, resources and programs. By surveying each of the 55 sites, state managers can clearly understand the staffing needs and operational levels for each place, Landstrom said. The state plans to identify sites that may not fit into the system as fully staffed parks, such as historical landmarks. These sites would still provide public access but potentially reduce resources and services, similar to how the National Park Service maintains monuments, Landstrom said.

At the same time, state managers would identify sites that could potentially add new services, such as ziplining or additional camping, to provide new revenues sources and recreational opportunities.

“There’s a very serious conversation going on about how should the state parks system be funded? How can it remain solvent?” Landstrom said. “The challenge is always how do we most effectively, efficiently use those funds to manage the state parks system. It’s important for us to develop tasteful ways to keep the lights on.”

Before any decision would be made about changes to the system, the public would be invited and encouraged to provide input, Landstrom noted.

“It would be great for the public to engage and tell us their impression of what they’d like to see,” he said.

To view the proposed state parks plan, “Charting a New Tomorrow,” visit stateparks.mt.gov.

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