Bill to Increase Parks Fees Receives Senate Support

Lawmakers advance measure that would improve state parks and public trails

By Tristan Scott
West Shore State Park. Beacon File Photo

The Montana Senate on Feb. 12 endorsed a bill to increase the motor-vehicle fee that supports state parks and fishing access sites by $3, increasing the annual fee from $6 to $9 per vehicle.

Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, the sponsor of Senate Bill 24 said the fee increase would raise an additional $2 million a year for maintaining Montana’s 55 state parks, as well as their access sites, and fund a new grant program for improving public trails.

It’s the first increase in the fee since 2003, Gauthier said, and would enhance the state’s park system without foisting a prohibitive cost on park users.

“This is for the grandkids, this is for my kids, this is for everybody in Montana,” he said, noting that for many residents parks and public lands offer the only access opportunity on public lands. “For 95 percent of Montanans, the parks are what it’s all about.”

The money is paid into the trails and recreational facilities account, which may then be used by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to provide trails and recreational facilities grants.

The Senate voted 31-19 to endorse the measure, including all 20 Senate Democrats and 11 Republicans. A final vote on Feb. 14 sent the bill to the House.

Previously tabled in the Senate Natural Resources Committee chaired by Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, Gauthier requested that the full Senate bring the bill to the floor, and on a 30-16 vote it acquiesced.

Fielder, an opponent of the bill, said the bill’s voluntary fee-collection program on vehicle registrations seemed problematic, but Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson, of Great Falls, countered that the voluntary method of collecting those fees is already in place in existing law and is a moot point of argument.

According to the bill, “A person who registers a light vehicle may, at the time of annual registration, certify that the person does not intend to use the vehicle to visit state parks and fishing access sites and may make a written election not to pay the additional $9 fee.”

Nearly $2 million of the increased revenue from the higher fee would finance the new grant program for trail improvement. The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would award the grants to local governments, tribal governments, recreational clubs and state and federal agencies.

According to Gauthier, a 33 percent increase in state-park visitation since 2012 highlights the public’s interest in recreational access, and increasing maintenance for the parks encourages more visitors to the state and is a boon to the economy.