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Past due

Underfunded, understaffed state parks ask for critical help

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Buried at the bottom of page 8 of the Montana Legislature's failed infrastructure bill this spring was a line item allocating $1.75 million for electrical upgrades at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Compared to the multimillion-dollar asks associated with capital projects like Montana State University's Romney Hall, the amount seemed fairly modest. But for the chronically understaffed and underfunded Montana State Parks, that money would have gone a long way in addressing the problem of an ungrounded electrical system that has plagued the popular western Montana park—and literally shocked its staff—for years.

Lewis and Clark Caverns is far from the only site in dire need of attention. This June, Montana State Parks released an independently conducted inventory of priority projects at 14 of its 55 parks statewide. The study revealed more than $5.8 million worth of projects listed as "high," "critical" or "emergency" priority, from a structurally unsound trail bridge at Makoshika State Park to a fire alarm system at Bannack State Park that has "reached the end of its useful life." The agency's average annual budget is roughly $8.2 million.

"These needs are past due," says state parks administrator Chas Van Genderen. "These needs are now. And we're doing our best to bring these priorities forward. I'm talking to the director of the [Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks] department about these needs and he's saying, 'Well, I can't use fish and wildlife license dollars to help you.' And we don't get any general fund monies. So as a parks system, it all makes this really difficult."

Visitation at state parks across Montana has risen dramatically, from 1.2 million visitors in 2002 to 2.25 million in 2014. Yet the park system remains one of the weakest in the country when it comes to staff and operating funds. Montana State Parks took a close look this summer at staff and budget levels at peer agencies in North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho, and the analysis showed Montana has 68 percent of the staff and 64 percent of the budget of its neighbors. Those harsh realities belie the natural and cultural opportunities that exist in Montana's front-country, Van Genderen says, which is exactly why the Montana State Parks Board—formed in 2013—has charged the agency with executing a strategic plan to better allocate its limited resources.

An effort to secure $1.75 million for electrical upgrades at Lewis and Clark Caverns—one of a growing list of overdue projects for Montana State Parks—failed when the legislature shot down a sweeping infrastructure bill. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA STATE PARKS
  • photo courtesy of Montana State Parks
  • An effort to secure $1.75 million for electrical upgrades at Lewis and Clark Caverns—one of a growing list of overdue projects for Montana State Parks—failed when the legislature shot down a sweeping infrastructure bill.

Next month, Montana State Parks will roll out a draft policy intended to help prioritize the needs of sites like Lewis and Clark Caverns based on significance, relevance and accessibility. The goal, Van Genderen says, is to "take care of first things first in a more businesslike manner" in the interests of creating better experiences for community members and tourists alike. Once presented to the board, the draft will be available for public comment.

The prioritization of park projects hasn't exactly gone over well in some cases. After Montana State Parks rescinded a $300,000 request this August to get potable water into Makoshika, Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison publicly expressed his disappointment that other parks would take precedent. Jimison's stance failed to take into account that the agency had spent its entire two-year road budget a few years earlier repairing a portion of the washed out road to Makoshika; further pavement and repairs were identified as a "high" priority in the June inventory, with an estimated price tag of $1.8 million.

Compounding the challenges of overdue projects and scant funding is a gradual rise in off-season visitation. The agency began fielding numerous complaints three years ago over a lack of reservations at the Wayfarers State Park campground during the annual Montana Spartan Race near Bigfork. The reason there were no reservations, Van Genderen says, is because there was no seasonal staff member present at the time to process and post those reservations.

"People are finding new and different ways to recreate all the time," Van Genderen says. "It's a wonderful thing ... but we don't have any seasonals to take care of stuff."

Part of the conversation Van Genderen sees moving forward involves reaching out to potential community partners. And the one outlier in the parks system, the relatively new Milltown State Park, offers something of a model on which to build those discussions. Milltown is an ongoing acquisition and development project for Montana State Parks, but is bolstered by an outside funding source—the state's Natural Resource Damage Program—and a partnership with Missoula County. As Montana State Parks gets a better handle on where its tight resources can be best applied, Van Genderen says, it may fall to city or county governments to pick up where the agency leaves off.

"We've got to start talking about philanthropy, we've got to start talking about other ways for us to generate revenues and generate support for this park system because we've got some amazing resources," Van Genderen says. "And it may not be of statewide significance, but that doesn't mean places don't matter."

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