For over a year now Montanans have been bombarded with lamentation about the fiscal situation of our state parks. If you believed members of the recently established State Parks Board, including former legislator Tom Towe and former Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton, the parks division is in dire straits and may have to divest of some parks to remain solvent. Well, at least that’s their story, which went out the window last week when it was revealed to the legislature that Montana State Parks is sitting on an unspent $11.2 million in the bank.
While the Montana State Parks’ board members have seriously misled the public, the real story behind the Parks division’s actions, and the spending proclivities associated with same, are quite another story – and one that Montanans deserve to know. It’s important to remember, after all, that these parks belong to all Montanans, not to the Parks division or the Parks Board.
So here are some inconvenient truths about state parks which, by the way, might not be a bad idea for the Parks Board members to learn since they seem to have neglected to do their homework on both the laws governing state parks and the agency’s ongoing efforts to ignore those laws and “go rogue” with their development agenda.
Simply put, back in the '90s other states that had overdeveloped their parks were being forced to close or divest those parks due to budgetary imbalances. What that means is that they couldn’t charge park users enough to cover the ongoing costs of their parks. In order to keep Montana from facing this same situation, the legislature passed a number of bills to ensure that Montana didn’t follow the same path.
One of the first of those bills was the Primitive Parks Act of 1993. As the law (MCA 23-1-116) reads: “Because of their unique and primarily undeveloped character, the following state parks and management areas are designated as primitive parks...” The legislature reasoned that not only would overdevelopment lead to fiscal problems in the future, but that many Montanans prefer to enjoy a less developed camping experience rather than the high-end amenities commonly found in commercial campgrounds such as KOAs. Likewise, it seemed prudent to not compete with KOAs and other amenity-rich campgrounds, since those businesses pay the taxes on which government relies. The measure also prohibited entrance fees for Montanans, although camping fees were allowed to generate the funds for necessary maintenance.
Unfortunately, maintenance was not high on the priority list for state parks and in the late 90s, the legislature felt it necessary to pass the Good Neighbor Policy (MCA 23-1-126) which states: “The good neighbor policy of public land use, as applied to public recreational lands, seeks a goal of no impact upon adjoining private and public lands by preventing impact on those adjoining lands from noxious weeds, trespass, litter, noise and light pollution, streambank erosion, and loss of privacy.”
Perhaps the most salient requirement of the law is Section 2, which clearly sates: “In order to implement the good neighbor policy expeditiously, the legislature finds it necessary to require the department of fish, wildlife, and parks to place maintenance as a priority over additional development at all state parks and fishing access sites.” (emphasis added)
If the Parks Division followed the law, it was required to “place maintenance as a priority over additional development at all state parks and fishing access sites.” Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer decided to appoint his old college roommate, Joe Maurier, who was the director of the highly developed Colorado State Parks, as the director of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Maurier was determined to place development over maintenance as the priority for Montana’s state parks, regardless of the law.
Consequently, millions of dollars were spent developing high-end commodities in parks while the mysterious “maintenance backlog” grew. Now, according to Towe and Sexton, we should put millions more into “high priority” parks, which is agency-speak for those parks that produce the most revenue. The law says just the opposite – but it’s just another rogue action by State Parks, which now seeks even less legislative oversight.
Bottom line – the $11.2 million should be spent on parks and fishing access site maintenance, not more development. It’s about time Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the State Parks Board quit whining, read the law, and start following it to properly maintain, not threaten divestiture, of our state parks and fishing access sites.