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Montanans can visit all 55 of our state parks for free. It’s a great deal that draws about 2 million visits per year.

Unfortunately, the parks are worse for the wear with more than $22 million in maintenance backlogs and infrastructure needs, parks that are undeveloped, underdeveloped and understaffed. The parks division has only 60 full-time, year-round employees for the entire 55-park system.

Montana State Parks has a total annual operating budget of about $8 million and $4 million for capital projects, but receives no state general fund money. The parks don’t get money from hunting or fishing licenses. The No. 1 source of parks revenue is the optional $6 fee on light vehicle registrations. Fortunately for park lovers, most people opt to pay that fee as they pay their annual vehicle registrations. But the vehicle fees are only 33 percent of the parks budget. The rest of the budget comes from fees for camping and other services, concessionaire contracts, state accommodations tax, boat and fuel decals, coal tax, federal and park store retail sales.

In 2014, the parks division and the state’s newly created park board wrote a strategic plan for the 2015-2020. Among its goals are:

  • Developing diversified revenues
  • Growing strategic public-private partnerships
  • Building an engaged constituency for state parks

Progress toward those goals has fallen short in the years since they were written. That’s why in January Gov. Steve Bullock appointed an independent panel of entrepreneurs and other Montanans who care about parks to gather public comment, brainstorm new ideas and research how to better support and sustain parks like Makoshika near Glendive, Medicine Rocks by Baker, Hell Creek in the Missouri Breaks, Pictograph Cave, Plenty Coups and Lake Elmo near Billings, Cooney in Carbon County.

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As the commission looks at sustaining revenue for the state parks, it ought to consider that the vehicle fees now providing a third of the budget only apply to cars, vans and pickup trucks. Many motorized vehicles that are driven into state parks have permanent registration. Recreational vehicles, campers, boats, ATVs and motorcycles have one-time fees assessed, so keeping them on the road doesn’t generate fee revenue to maintain state parks.

Another area the commission should scrutinize is enterprise. Very little parks revenue comes from concessionaires, yet such private enterprises in public parks can enhance the visitor experience — with food, facilities, activities and supplies — while boosting park revenue.

The Parks in Focus Commission is scheduled to meet later this week in Kalispell and to tour state parks in the Flathead area. Its next meeting will be Sept. 28 at Makoshika. The final meeting in December will be at First People's Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls. 

This commission of highly capable volunteers will be making recommendations to the governor and 2019 Legislature. Speak up now to be part of forging a better future for Montana State Parks.

— Billings (Mont.) Gazette

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