The new director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is optimistic about the direction of the agency after a tumultuous legislative session brought to light inner conflicts and exposed a fissure among the individual departments.
Martha Williams, FWP’s new chief and a former legal counsel for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the energy within the agency is “good and it’s improving,” and she hopes to continue to unify the departments and move forward with Montana’s wildlife and outdoors in mind.
“I know some of the parks staff are really building bridges with the other divisions, where we’re sharing expertise and information on what we’re learning and what works,” Williams said. “We’ve learned some lessons.”
When asked to elaborate on those lessons, Williams responded, “One of my goals is to unify the agency and look forward, and in moving forward to really value all employees.”
Over the last few years, challenges have emerged within the agency tasked with managing and maintaining a complex — and vast — suite of resources, including wildlife and parks. While the agency is handling a diverse range of fish and wildlife issues, including the threat of aquatic invasive species, Montana’s state parks are more popular than ever. But funding remains stagnant, and deferred maintenance keeps piling up.
A past independent review of 14 state park sites showed $8.8 million to $9.2 million in needed repairs. The firm reviewed another 20 sites, including a pair of local parks, and found similar deferred maintenance.
In late December, state officials said the parks administrator, Chas Van Genderen, was no longer with the agency after eight years. No explanation was given, and recently the state of Montana reached a settlement agreement with Van Genderen for an undisclosed sum.
During the legislative session last winter, House Bill 324 sought to take away authority of the FWP director for state parks and assign that responsibility to the existing state parks board made up of citizen members. It was the second straight legislative session that saw an effort gain steam but inevitably fail to move Montana State Parks to another agency.
In August, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a new “Parks in Focus” initiative aimed at identifying “long-term solutions to the opportunities and challenges faced by Montana’s State Parks system.”
The announcement came at the same time the five-member parks board was reorganized with several new members. Chair Tom Towe departed the board along with co-chair Mary Sexton as well as Diane Conradi, the representative for this corner of the state, and Douglas Smith. The board now includes chair Angie Grove of Helena, Jeff Welch of Livingston, Mary Sheehy Moe of Great Falls, Betty Stone of Glasgow and Scott Brown of Billings.
The board’s meeting in August was postponed indefinitely, and outgoing chair Towe told Lee Newspapers that the governor’s staff told the board to postpone the meeting without offering a reason.
Bullock, in announcing the Parks in Focus initiative, said the new board would craft the finer points of the initiative.
“‘Parks in Focus’ will leverage relevant expertise to conduct research, support transparent engagement and ultimately deliver and begin implementation of a set of recommendations that build from the Parks 2020 strategic vision,” Bullock said in a statement.
“The strength of our State Parks system ultimately contributes to enhancing our quality of life and our outdoor recreation economy and thus our commitment to a shared vision for the future of our Parks must be made by all Montanans who care about the resources under stewardship of the Department,” Bullock wrote in a memo to Williams explaining the goals of the initiative.
Williams attended the National Association of State Parks Director Conference in Missoula last week and said she considered it a “boost in the arm” for Montana’s beloved parks moving forward.
“Something that will stick with me is all the energy and all the people there who care so much about parks, and to take that experience and kick off a year for parks,” she said. “It showed how our staff can rally together and really highlighted and showed off Montana’s resources. I feel it was the boost in the arm to say we can do this and we have all these opportunities and we should take that and run with it.”
Williams said the outdoor recreation industry has a rapidly growing presence across the U.S. but especially in Montana, which offers everything one could hope for.
“The outdoors is Montana’s identity, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is all about recreation, whether it’s family camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, all these different experiences,” she said.
Williams said the primary challenge remains identifying viable funding sources that allow the agency to maintain its large lineup of responsibilities.
She said the agency plans to hire a new parks administrator in the coming months. The application period for the position closed this week.