Unforeseen Funding Violation Discovered at Flathead Lake State Park

Decades later, new information creates costly problem for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency

By Dillon Tabish
West Shore State Park. Beacon File Photo

Roughly 60 years ago, state officials worked out a deal with a private landowner over a piece of property along Flathead Lake.

The state agreed to exchange land at Clearwater Junction on Montana Highway 200 for 73 acres next to West Shore State Park off U.S. 93.

Decades passed, the expanded park developed into one of the most popular public access sites on Flathead Lake and management of the state’s parks bounced around from the Highway Department to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Also, a generation of park employees retired or moved on.

In the past year, while reviewing old files, FWP personnel discovered a troubling piece of information related to that West Shore transaction: the land at Clearwater Junction was originally purchased in part with federal Pittman-Robertson dollars and funds tied to hunting licenses, both of which require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oversee conservation efforts and habitat protection on that land for wildlife and waterfowl.

“With the turnover and change in personnel, nobody really knew the history of this complicated transaction,” said Sue Daly, FWP’s chief of administration.

The discovery of this new information means over half of the 129-acre state park is encumbered with the USFWS and does not meet its original requirements, forcing FWP to make up for this property with lands of equal value containing the original wildlife provisions.

“It will require appraisals under federal standards, and it will be costly,” Jeff Hagener told the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a meeting in Helena on April 14. “We may have to divert money from other programs.”

Daly said the agency is in the process of answering several questions, including the modern value of West Shore State Park and what other FWP properties could be given to the USFWS that meet the habitat requirements.

“We do plan to look at some existing properties the department owns that have no encumbrances on them and see if we can’t get some valuations on those properties as well as West Shore,” Daly told the Beacon. “And we have to see what our ballpark targets are.”

West Shore State Park clearly does not meet the habitat requirements due to its campground, boat launch and picnic area.

One of the key challenges will be finding a piece of land in equal value to West Shore, which has a high real estate value along Flathead Lake.

Paul Sihler, FWP chief of staff, told commission members that the concern is the value of West Shore State Park may far exceed other properties.

The possibility of having to divert funds from other programs or sources could deal a painful blow to FWP. The agency, which does not receive state general fund dollars and depends on the sale of fish and hunting licenses for the lion’s share of its budget, has faced deep cuts in recent years.

Funding for the Montana State Parks system has stagnated and remained the same since 2000. Montana’s park budget 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.

The West Shore dilemma arrives at a time when the agency is also trying to resolve the future of another popular Flathead Lake state park. Big Arm State Park, a 217-acre property, sits on state trust lands that require FWP to rent the land for its appraised value. FWP is working on a conservation easement that would secure the land in perpetuity.

If FWP does not address the change of use at West Shore State Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may declare the state in a diversion status and Montana may not be eligible to receive the $27 million of Pittman-Robertson, Dingell Johnson, and state wildlife grant funding that is available.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission endorsed FWP’s efforts to move forward seeking a resolution. Daly and others will meet with the State Parks and Recreation Board next week.

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