State Parks: Montana’s ‘Red-headed Stepchild’
Separating “fish and wildlife” from “parks” in Montana state government is a delicate operation, one that House Bill 24 seeks to complete and one that legislators say will leave both parts stronger for it, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
Under HB 24, Montana’s parks would still fall under the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), but the parks division would have its own commission.
Right now, FWP commissioners decide on all FWP issues, and some say that parks concerns are pushed aside in order for commissioners to deal with all the wildlife challenges.
“Parks is the red-headed stepchild of the most controversial agency in the state,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.
Isolating the oversight of parks wasn’t easy, so leaving the division under FWP made more sense than transferring it to the Department of Commerce, as proposed in the 2011 session.
George Golie of the Montana Wildlife Federation had concerns about the new commission’s authority. The bill said it would have jurisdiction over motor vehicle issues, including boats, but that would steal some funding and authority away from game wardens.
Two weeks of work produced an amendment that allowed the bill to leave the committee unopposed and pass the House 93-2.
“We’re comfortable with it now as it’s amended,” said wildlife federation spokesman Nick Gevock.
Montana has an extensive and attractive park system, worthy of “the last, best place,” with everything from historical ghost towns and buffalo jumps to lakes and forests.
In the nine-state Rocky Mountain region, Montana has the most state parks with 54, with Colorado in second place with 43.
However, Colorado has an annual parks budget of around $25 million. Montana parks are trudging along with $7.5 million in order to take care of around 2 million visitors.
Ankney said his grandchildren enjoyed a trip to Lewis and Clark Caverns over Labor Day.
“It’s not hard to look around and see what could be done to improve things,” Ankney said. “We’re getting quite a bit of visitors in spite how they’re taken care of.”
State Parks administrator Chaz Van Genderer said the lighting system in the Lewis and Clark Caverns needed an upgrade costing at least $1 million. Several parks need upgrades if the money could be found.
But if the recent discussion over the elimination of the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park proved anything, it’s that the parks system has moral support.
State parks already have a separate budget and get no hunting and fishing money. The system depends mainly on $6 vehicle license fees, park fees for people without state licenses, taxes and other fees.
Van Genderen has had to decommission one state park near Three Forks and has allowed leases and easements for other parks to lapse without money to pay for them.
Managers need to come up with more inventive ways to deal with an inadequate budget and that’s hard to do when they don’t have a devoted commission.
“As an agency, we have one of the best fish and wildlife systems, respected nationally,” Van Genderen said at the Feb. 14 commission meeting. “As a park system, we are one of the weakest, and we have some hard decisions ahead.”
HB 24 will be heard March 8 in the Senate Natural Resources committee.