Ex-State Park Board Chairman Urges $4M Hell Creek Investment

Improvements would make it a “genuine destination park” on Fort Peck Reservoir

By BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette

A minimum of $4 million should be raised to invest in much-needed improvements to Hell Creek State Park in order to make it a “genuine destination park” on Fort Peck Reservoir.

That’s the recommendation of Tom Towe, a Billings attorney who was appointed as a special liaison to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams, the Billings Gazette reported. Towe was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in 2017 to lead the discussion of funding for the park. He submitted his suggestions to Williams in a letter dated Dec. 18.

“There are monies available,” Towe said, based on the increase in money state residents pay for licensing their vehicles, a portion of which will boost Montana State Parks’ coffers.

The last Legislature’s investment of $700,000 into a new sewer and water system for Hell Creek also demonstrates a political will for supporting Hell Creek, he said.

Back when Towe was chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, a decision was made to consider leaving Hell Creek when the state’s current lease with the Army Corps of Engineers expires in 2021. The Corps is responsible for managing all of the shoreline around the lake and leases the land for Hell Creek State Park to the state for a minimal fee.

Back then, with a different park board and director, 2019 was marked as the date for making a definitive decision on whether the state would stay or go. With a new park board, park director and FWP director the deadline passed with little nod to the previous commitment, with only assurances from officials that Hell Creek would remain a state park. The new water and sewer system was touted as proof of that commitment.

Towe got tangled in the fray that erupted when the previous park director was dismissed and the Legislature latched on to unused park funds. After he was dismissed by the governor, Towe negotiated his term as liaison, despite the fact that he had lobbied to make state parks a separate entity from FWP. Now he is reporting to the FWP director.

In his 13 page letter to director Williams, Towe “strongly” recommended that the lease be renewed with the Corps of Engineers so that the state could enter into a 20-year contract with a concessionaire to operate the marina and hotel. That facility is currently operated by Clint and Deb Thomas.

Towe said the contract for the concessionaire should be put out for bid, without the state playing “favorites.”

To improve the marina, hotel and maybe add a restaurant and boat repair shop would be a big improvement to Hell Creek State Park, Towe said. The concessions are separate from the campground, which has a comfort station with showers and a fish cleaning station.

He also advocated for an interpretive ranger at the park to provide historical and informational programs to the public and for opportunities such as swimming, hiking and learning about the area’s wildlife and habitat.

FWP director Williams could not be reached for comment as she was out of the office for the Christmas holiday.

In the past Montana State Parks has tended to focus increased funding on its facilities in the western half of the state, which receive the most visitation. Towe said that Eastern Montana is long overdue for its fair share and Hell Creek State Park on the banks of Fort Peck Reservoir would be the perfect spot to make that investment.

“With a little money that could be a real beneficial park and meet the needs of a lot of people,” Towe said.

Towe is not alone in his belief. A group of Hell Creek users have formed a coalition to ensure the park remains and is enhanced. The group has cast around for other sources to take over operations if the state dropped the park, but found no one.

In August the Little Shell Tribe proposed in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that it would take over the park and run it if they could get a 30-year lease.

A contractor for the Department of Tourism authored a report released this fall that showed Hell Creek State Park as a key location that attracts visitors from North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as nearby Fergus and Phillips counties.

One of the reports’ regional objectives included developing and redeveloping tourism assets and amenities. But the document went on to note: “The communities and regional marketing organizations have very limited funds to support tourism marketing, develop new or maintain/redevelop existing infrastructure.”

The report, which was written after consultation with local businesses and residents, recognizes fishing as a “key tourism driver” in the region. “Fort Peck Lake itself was mentioned as ‘the only actual tourism destination’ in the area. Participants argued that ‘if we could keep adding attractions there we might get it up to critical mass for tourism.’ The lake was described as needing more marinas, a modern hotel, an outdoor learning center and a venue to accommodate large groups.”

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