Bill is only a patch on the problem, but any funding helps

Terry Gauthier has been using state parks ever since he can remember. He told Prairie Populist that when he was a kid, his family had enough money to pay the bills, but not a lot extra. Luckily, state parks were accessible and affordable for him and his family. They always had enough money for a tank of gas for the truck and camper.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Gauthier, now a State Senator representing Helena, explained about growing up and taking advantage of state parks.

However, the parks that Sen. Gauthier enjoyed as a kid need attention. We saw this first hand when we at Prairie Populist visited 20 of Montana’s 55 state parks this past summer.

“The last capital investment in some of these parks was in the 80s or early 90s. Anybody who owns a home will tell you, stuff wears out. That’s no different with the parks,” explained Dave Landstrom, park manager for Region One, which includes Flathead Lake. “Sewer lines, water lines, roads, docks, boat ramps . . . we keep patching them together weld on top of weld because we don’t have any other option at this point.”

Parks currently face a $22 million dollar deficit in maintenance costs.

“Visitation has only increased over the years,” Colin Maas, the park manager at Sluice Boxes State Park, located 40 miles south of Great Falls, said. “Funding and staffing has not.”

A bridge at Sluice Boxes State Park. Photo by August Schield

“There is just not resources to do everything we want to,” Doug Habermann, the Easter Regional Parks Manager, said when commending Frank Mehling, a rancher whose property borders every side of Medicine Rocks State Park. Mehling has put out two lightning fires in the park himself since he is often the only person around to keep an eye on Medicine Rocks State Park.

Volunteers donate 21-full time employees worth of hours to state parks every year. While Montanans’ devotion to their parks is amazing, the need for volunteers contrasted with the lack of money to pay for maintenance or wages worries many.

Last summer, Bob Walker, Montana Trails Coalition chairman, told Sen. Gauthier about a bill he wanted to pass during the 2019 session that would help fund state parks by increasing the optional light motor vehicle fee from $6 to $9. The fee increase would add $2 million more dollars per year to the parks and recreation budget. It’s clear that our parks are in need of a boost. Although the fee increase only addresses a fraction of the outstanding maintenance costs, it’s something. Anything helps.

Gauthier, who knows Walker through the Last Chance Riders Motorcycle Club, offered to sponsor the bill.

“I would not carry this bill if I didn’t think it was good,” said Gauthier. “We have a great state and I truly believe taking care of the parks benefits all of us.”

Those proponents who showed up to testify at the first committee hearing last Tuesday exemplified Gauthier’s belief that this bill would benefit all types Montanans. Over a dozen statewide organizations are in support of the bill, and no one showed up to oppose it. Supporters comprised a wide range of trail users, from the Montana Snowmobile Association to the Montana Wilderness Association.

Supporters were not limited to recreationalists. A representative from Blue Cross and Blue Shield and a representative from the Montana Association of Realtors testified in favor of the bill, pointing out that recreational opportunities increase people’s health and build better neighborhoods.  

Bannack Days at Bannack State Park. Photo by August Shield

After Prairie Populist’s summer touring the state parks, we know that the need for this bill is well founded. For the price of a pint of cheap beer, extra money could be available for trails at Makoshika State Park, updated signage at Rosebud Battlefield State Park, or preservation efforts at Bannack State Park if the bill passes.

The first hearing for the funding bill in the Senate Fish and Game committee was last Tuesday, February 4th. Now, all supporters of the extra funding for parks are anxiously waiting for Senator Jennifer Fielder, committee chairwoman, to schedule the bill for a vote.

-Andie Creel

Feature photo by August Shield at Brush Lake State Park

Be sure to check out all of our state parks coverage from this past summer. We’ve been reminiscing on the warm days we spent in the parks!

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