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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Commission Proposes Funding, Maintenance Fixes For Montana State Parks

First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.
Nicky Ouellet
Montana Public Radio
First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.

Montana has more state parks than any other state in the Rocky Mountain region. Friday, the governor's Parks In Focus Commission released its recommendations for addressing the funding and maintenance challenges the state parks face.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park is one of the 55 state parks.

"This became a park in '72, where that was pretty much just the top of the jump, and when we drive up there you'll see that area," says Alice Southworth, the park’s acting manager.

The park features one of the largest buffalo jumps in the country, where about a dozen Native American tribes took advantage of a natural mile-long cliffband to hunt bison on foot before horses had been introduced.

Standing atop the jump, she points to the vast prairie below.

"So there’s going to be hunters stationed down there in kind of a corral, and their job is to finish off those angry buffalo that didn't die from the fall. So, another very dangerous position. And then of course after all the animals are killed, there's the long process of taking off the hide, collecting what they need from the buffalo, cutting off the meat, drying it into jerky," she says.

Southworth says archaeologists are still uncovering the history of the place, thanks in large part to state and federal protections.

"The archaeological digs done here, they've gone down about eight feet or so. But they do believe that bone layer goes down 18 feet."

State parks like First Peoples can draw 400 visitors a day in the summer, something Southworth says with pride and a sigh.

"The biggest challenge is financial. You know, things break down. You need budgets for programming," she says.

Montana’s state parks face a $22 million maintenance backlog, according to a performance audit requested by legislators in April. The audit found that the parks division had failed to plan for ongoing maintenance needs and neglected to track its progress addressing those needs. It echoed reports dating back to the 1990s that outlined similar problems.

Stace Lindsay chairs the Montana Parks in Focus Commission.
Credit Nicky Ouellet / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
Stace Lindsay chairs the Montana Parks in Focus Commission.

"We've known the whole time that the problems are real and what's broken is pretty consistent," says Stace Lindsay. 

Lindsay chairs a commission created by Governor Steve Bullock in January to come up with a set of recommendations to address funding and management issues and build more public support for state parks.

The Commission released its final recommendations last Friday at First Peoples.

Deb Love is a senior program director with Resources Legacy Fund, a non-profit that drafted the recommendations.

"We were tasked with building public-private partnerships, diversifying funding streams and building a constituency for parks," she says.

Love says for years, state parks has been stuck in a vicious cycle: Parks were seen as underfunded and underperforming, which made legislators hesitant to invest, which led to even less funding, which led to the current maintenance backlog.

She’s hopeful the commission’s recommendations and implementation plan, paired with newly installed leaders in the parks division and its parent Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, can bring state parks out of that cycle so they can live up to their full potential.

Deb Love is a senior program director with Resources Legacy Fund, a non-profit that drafted the Montana Parks In Focus recommendations.
Credit Nicky Ouellet / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
Deb Love is a senior program director with Resources Legacy Fund, a non-profit that drafted the Montana Parks In Focus recommendations.

"One of the things we heard very strongly today was the impacts of the incredible demand for outdoor recreation opportunities on our trails and in our state parks, and for state parks to be ready for that demand to come."

Agencies and legislators are already working on implementing some of the commission’s recommendations. For example, Senator Terry Gauthier, a Republican from Helena, is backing a bill to increase the optional vehicle registration fee that funds state parks from $6 to $9, and he's proposing to use some of that money for a new trails and recreation grant program.

Beth Shumate, Parks Division administrator, says she’s acting on some of the Commission’s recommendations, like forging new partnerships to help fund and drum-up public support for parks.

"We're looking beyond just the typical parks and recreation partners, but we're looking for the healthcare industry partners as well as transportation leaders, economic development, local businesses, the league of cities and towns, as well as MACo," she says.

MACo is the Montana Association of Counties.

Shumate says she’s asked for an additional 13 seasonal staff to meet peak visitation demand and that the division is using new software to track infrastructure maintenance and costs.

Parks in Focus commissioners also think that tweaking how state parks are described and classified could help managers better allocate funding and resources across the state, and let the public know what to expect when they make a visit. That recommendation goes before the State Parks and Recreation Board this Wednesday in Helena.

In Ulm, I’m Nicky Ouellet, Montana Public Radio.

An electronic version of the Parks In Focus Commission’s recommendations was not available at the time of publication.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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