As one of the most challenging years in Montana history comes to a close, we want to call Montanans’ attention to the important role our state parks and fishing access sites have played during the COVID crisis.
As social distancing became necessary and isolation common, Montana’s parks and access sites offered a way for families to “be alone together” in the great outdoors. In the first half of the year alone, four out of five state parks experienced increases in visitation, with huge spikes in February, March and April. In eastern Montana, Makoshika saw a nearly 60% increase in January-June visitations. In western Montana, Thompson Chain of Lakes welcomed 40% more visitors. And in the heart of Montana, Ackley Lake experienced a stunning 156% increase in visitation.
In spite of the pandemic, our state parks and fishing access sites continued to support Montana’s significant tourism industry. Our water-based parks were a huge draw for Montanans and out-of-state visitors as well. As an example, preliminary statistics for floaters on the Smith River from April 1 to Oct. 8 show that 4,269 Montana residents and 1,340 non-residents floated on their own, a new record for private floaters on the Smith. Outfitted floaters guided another 402 residents and 300 non-residents. New protocols for camping and launching, enacted as COVID measures, had the corollary benefit of increasing the flow of tourism dollars in nearby communities.
In short, 2020 was the busiest season on record for the state park system. We all know why. Even though the pressures of a pandemic have hemmed us in, “the outside is in us all.” To reflect on the story of the girl who saved her brother at Rosebud State Park … to teach your children about how the “medicine rocks” at Medicine Rocks State Park came to be … to allow your worries to be washed away as you fish the day away on a Montana lake … These are not just ways to escape the modern world. They are ways to get in touch with what matters.
Providing this outlet in a safe way for a record number of visitors required an extraordinary effort on the part of state parks staff statewide. In addition to their usual duties, they put in 16-hour days for weeks on end, keeping public areas clean and making social distancing possible while providing an experience for visitors that continued to be first-class.
As leaders of Montana’s State Parks and Recreation Board, we thank our staff for going above and beyond at a difficult time. We thank Montana’s legislature for continuing to invest in maintaining and improving this tremendous asset to our state. Finally, we thank all the visitors to our state parks who treat these unique spaces as the treasures they are. Thanks to all of you, we were not stuck inside in 2020. The beauty of Montana’s landscape, culture, and recreation was here for us all.
Angie Grove is chair and Mary Sheehy Moe is vice chair of Montana’s State Parks and Recreation Board.