Camp hosts offer critical short-term help but our parks need a long-term budget solution. 

Summer means exploring our state, and at Prairie Populist we’re joining the thousands of Montanans visiting the amazing lands, lakes, and historical sites that make up Montana’s state parks. We hope you’ll check back all summer and join us as we explore what these parks mean for the people of our state and how they help make Montana a place unlike any other.

It’s just before sunrise and Amy Grout, a park management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), indulges in a few fleeting moments of solitude before her busy day begins. Charged with overseeing five of the six state parks that border Flathead Lake, Grout manages nearly 2,500 acres of state park land, including 98 campgrounds, 11 bathhouses, five boat launches, and three yurts, as well as miles of hiking trails and large stretches of wildlife habitat. On any given summer day, thousands of visitors pass through these sites.

Amy Grout

“Park managers are like city managers,” said Grout. “We deal with budgets, septic systems, and law enforcement. If you don’t like variety, you don’t last very long as a park manager.”

Faced with a system-wide budget deficit and staffing cuts, park managers have a long list of administrative and maintenance duties. Tasks once tackled by several employees now rest on their shoulders. And the workload is only increasing.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen a combined 600,000 visits for all the park units in Region One. [Half of] those visits are to Flathead Lake,” said Dave Landstrom, park manager for Region One, which includes Flathead Lake, putting the growing responsibility of a park manager into perspective. “Over the last 10 years I have seen a 30 to 35 percent increase in visitation and usership with essentially no increase in operations and staffing.”

According to FWP data, visitation to Wayfarers State Park, the busiest park on the lake, has increased by 49 percent since 2011. In July 2017, the busiest month last year, more than 50,000 people visited the park.

“In the last legislative session we [saw] an almost crippling loss of capital and major maintenance funding,” said Landstrom, who oversees 14 state parks.

Ally McCurry at Wildhorse Island State Park.

On days when Grout should be spending time writing grants, balancing budgets, creating schedules, or identifying additional help, she often finds herself helping her paid staff with maintenance tasks, such as cleaning bathrooms.

“Any shortage in seasonal staffing falls on the management staff,” explained Grout, noting that the paid team includes herself, her assistant manager, Ally McCurry, and an administrative clerk.

There used to be a paid staff member dedicated to the maintenance of Wild Horse Island, but these days, most maintenance work falls to Grout and McCurry.

“I grew up on a dairy farm milking cows,” offered Landstrom by comparison. “When you have dairy cows . . . you do not get to walk away from them seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s exactly what a campground is like. You must have seven day a week staffing and almost 24 hours because you never know what’s going to happen in the middle of the night.”

Unfortunately, this level of staffing and funding does not exist for Region One. That’s where volunteers come in.

“Somebody can go and flip burgers and get [paid] way more than they can get while working at the park,” said Grout, explaining that camp hosts — volunteers who take on a regular role in park operations — are critical to keeping things running smoothly. “We would not be able to operate without them.”

Camp hosts are particularly important during the evening hours. They help campers with shower tokens and firewood, provide directions, and handle unforeseen emergencies.

The Hosts and their parks

Jane and Berry Woods

Jane and Berry Woods raised their children near Wayfarers State Park and now view their role as camp hosts as an opportunity to give back.

“As the need arises, we step in. You start at 7 a.m. and are on duty until 3 days later,” said Berry with a laugh. “Ya gotta get the plunger and do your best.

As the most heavily visited park on the lake, Wayfarers offers an array of recreational opportunities. But those activities come with staffing needs, including maintaining the boat ramp, sprucing up trails, and handling emergencies when they arise.

The Woods are two of about a half dozen park hosts who pitch in at Wayfarers. By manning the front gate, directing traffic, and helping campers to their campsites, these volunteers keep the busy park operating smoothly.

The park’s 30 campsites, including five spots for bikers who frequently use the site as a resting point while covering the Continental Divide, also require upkeep. The Woods and their fellow camp hosts clean campfire rings, pick up trash, and ensure the sites are always ready for the next camper to arrive. These tasks may sound simple, but they go a long way toward freeing up Grout and other park managers’ time to focus on other pressing matters.

A smoky August day on Flathead Lake.

Due west of Wayfarers, Westshore State Park features four miles of hiking trails along the lakeshore and 31 campsites, each one tucked into an old growth ponderosa pine forest. The park also boasts a boat launch, offering fishermen with boats of all sizes easy access to the shoreline.

Brian Schwartz manages Westshore as well as Lake St. Mary Ronan State Park and the beloved Lone Pine State Park near Kalispell. While Lone Pine occupies most of Schwartz’s time, he makes frequent trips to both West Shore and Lake St. Mary Ronan during the summer months. Neither of these parks have enough funding to stay operational year round.

Bob Simmons

“Montana seems to have a lot of rustic parks, I like that quality here. It’s quiet and the forest is beautiful,” said Bob Simmons, a camp host at Wayfarers. Simmons mans the park entrance and offers visitors information about the park and recreational opportunities.

A bit further south is Big Arm State Park. Views of the water from the campsites that dot the shoreline make these some of the most sought-after sites in the state. Visitors seeking a bit more comfort can rent one of the park’s three yurts. There’s also plenty of space for families to keep RVs and boat trailers while they are out on the lake.

Big Arm’s camp host, Maurice Hoover, helped me find a spot to camp, even though the park had no vacancies, but he encouraged me to make a reservation next time. Much of Maurice’s day-to-day tasks involve checking in on visitors and tending to unoccupied campsites. He enjoys getting to know the park visitors.

Maurice Hoover

“If you can bring a smile to someone’s face each day, you’ve accomplished good,” said Hoover, who also offered me a great cup of coffee the next morning. “We’ve got a good team here. We all help each other out. It feels like we’ve built a small community.”

Ruth Unruh

Next up is Finley Point State Park, where the campground was remodeled just last spring to offer campers more privacy between the sites.

The recent upgrades mean less day-to-day maintenance work for camp hosts like Ruth Unruh. But there is still plenty of work to keep Unruh busy, including tending to the park’s 16 new boat slips. The slips, which allow campers to keep their boats in the water overnight, are a sought-after amenity for those interested in enjoying a day on the water without worrying about where to store their boat in the evening.

On her off days, Unruh and her husband enjoy the perks of volunteering on a lake.45

“The lake makes things busy, but it’s beautiful,” said Unruh, returning from a four-and-a-half-mile canoe trek to point that gives this park its name.  

Rounding out the parks around Flathead Lake is Yellow Bay State Park. The least-visited campground on the lake, Yellow Bay could use a few upgrades.

“We are literally doing bookkeeping in an old shower house. Our storage room is also an old shower house,” said Grout with a chuckle. “We don’t have the money to improve and upgrade the infrastructure that exists here.”

Quiet and secluded, Yellow Bay is draped with a wildly overgrown ponderosa forest. In addition to being the most outdated park on the lake, Yellow Bay is also the smallest. The 15-acre park offers just five campsites. While these sites are a dream for anglers looking for solitude, the low demand makes it challenging to secure funds needed for infrastructure upgrades.

When I met Phil Allen, the camp host at Yellow Bay, he had just cut his evening swim short to help two gentlemen whose car died as they pulled their boat from the water. Allen called a tow truck and got them on their way. He and his wife are the only camp hosts on duty at Yellow Bay, but they enjoy the solitude. Allen’s also happy for a secluded place that can absorb his contagious laughter without disturbing too many visitors.  

Phil Allen

All told, camp hosts in these five parks pull a lot of weight. Each summer, when park visitor numbers are at their peak, volunteers are imperative to park operations. They are instrumental to giving visitors a good experience — and they are always the first ones on the scene in the case of an emergency.

Volunteers can’t go it alone

Although some parks are doing fairly well, others are falling apart. Funding cuts to FWP have left park managers like Grout without the resources to buy new equipment. In the short-term, park managers are getting creative about fixing what they can, even if they know the fix is not permanent.

For example, in Yellow Bay, the door knobs in the public shower house broke. With no budget to buy replacement knobs, the staff removed the knobs from inside the maintenance shed (which was once a shower house) and attached them to the public shower house door.

A broken dock.

“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 Landstrom. “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.”

Maintenance needs aren’t the only thing threatening access to these parks. By 2020, Big Arm is due for re-appraisal by the DNRC, which leases the land to FWP. Any increase to the current $18,000 per year price tag could make it impossible to retain the land.

“In 2020, we could lose the lease to that park and not have any more public access,” explained Grout.

Working for what matters most

“There is a pretty broad awareness within the legislature of the situation state parks are in, and that makes me hopeful,” explained Landstrom. “ I think folks want to find a solution. They may not all agree on what that solution is, but I think they all want to find one.”

Volunteers are a critical short-term fix, but they are not the long-term solution. Although volunteers are much appreciated and will always be an integral part of Montana’s parks, more permanent staffing is also needed, especially as visitation increases.

“I hate be to dramatic, but I really do think we’re at the point where we can no longer do more for less. I think we’re maxed,” said Landstrom. “On the down side, we have a pretty unhealthy reliance on volunteers. On the upside, we have a whole bunch of great volunteers. People who are volunteering for a cause are typically pretty passionate about public service.”

For many visitors, these parks are a special part of their vacation through the rocky West. For others who live among these prairies and mountain valleys, it is the best part of their day. They come to these places to decompress, breath fresh air, and toss a fishing line in the water.

“We are endlessly gratified by seeing people having fun and being satisfied with the state parks. We’re providing that for more people than we ever have before… it’s immensely gratifying” said Landstrom. “There is a real desire for partnerships and solutions to try and find a way to keep these parks functioning as they are now. It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a common goal. The access is important and [these parks] are a big part of life in Northwestern Montana.” A part of life FWP hope to maintain.

Although a bill to increase the funding for state parks has yet to be introduced, the Parks in Focus Foundation is working through the kinks and looking for new solutions moving forward.

-August Schield 

Photos by August Schield as well. 

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