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Montana State Parks Kicks Off Challenge To Rehab Public Trust

Nicky Ouellet
Members of the Kalispell Daybreak Rotary snap a photo for the State Park Adventure Challenge in Lone Pine State Park on Saturday, June 2.

This weekend, Montana State Parks kicked off a summer long initiative to draw more people to Montana’s 55 state parks.

But a springtime audit showed the parks have a $22 million maintenance backlog.

At Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell Saturday morning, more than 50 volunteers tackled a massive trail cleanup and weed pulling session.

Danni Coffman comes to this park often to trail run and walk with her daughter, who tells me her favorite weed is dandelion.

"We're lucky to have so many places to do this," Coffman says.

The volunteer labor here and at parks across the state this weekend is vital, says Coby Gierke, executive director of the Montana State Parks Foundation, a non-profit fundraising arm of the state parks system.

"We have a lot of acres and a lot of infrastructure that's not being taken care of to the standard people believe it should be and not up to the expectation people have when they come to a state park," Gierke says.

Gierke says some 2.7 million people visit Montana State Parks each year, boosting the state’s lucrative recreation economy. But compared to other states in the Intermountain West, Montana has the smallest operating budget and the biggest number of parks to maintain.

The April audit of the parks division of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks showed that the agency left $11 million sitting in the bank, even as parks deteriorated.

At Saturday’s event in Kalispell, Montana State Parks Administrator Beth Shumate says her agency is starting to implement six recommendations that came out of the audit.

"We are really working hard to improve our financial credibility and also working on trying to make sure that within the agency there's better oversight of our financial processes," Shumate says.

The Parks Division is trying to rehab it's image with the public this summer by hosting what it's calling an “Adventure Challenge.” It's a photo competition with eight recreation categories, ranging from fishing, visiting historic or cultural sites, volunteering in a state park to exploring a new trail. At the end of the summer, whoever’s image receives the most votes on social media will win prizes.

The State Parks Foundation's Coby Gierke is behind it.

"The Adventure Challenge is a way for us to get people really excited about parks, connect them with businesses in the state that really care about parks and start building a really strong network of park lovers who can help us make parks great all over Montana," Gierke says.

Based on the enthusiasm of the volunteers in Kalispell Saturday, many Montanans clearly love their parks and are willing to pitch in to keep them nice. But it’s a heavier lift if taxapyer money set aside for state parks is stuck in bank accounts and not being spent when parks have so many maintenance needs.

Parks Director Beth Shumate says that in addition to working on “improving [the agency’s] financial credibility and oversight of [its] financial processes,” it also plans to act on another audit recommendation: to improve duties and roles of the Parks and Recreations Board.

Danni Coffman, the avid trail runner, says it’s clear the state is short on funding. But she adds community support for state parks is there.

"It seems like people here love their public lands and really want to see them preserved," she says. "It seems like there's good community support and lots of people that want to help out. Just need to keep building on that, I guess."

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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