With names like Wayfarers and Black Sandy, Granite Ghost Town and Hell Creek, Lewis and Clark Caverns and Bannack, state parks reflect both Montana’s beauty and its rich history. But the history of the parks themselves and those charged with managing them is a tale of challenges and ideals still facing those same managers today.
Celebrating its 75th year, state parks in Montana have seen an ebb and flow of acquisition and abolition under a myriad of boards and departments. The push for state parks began in the 1920s as part of a national interest in recreation, David G. Conklin wrote in a 1978 article for Montana Outdoors.
Preserving outdoor recreation for tourism came mostly from an urban perspective, he wrote, and with the sparseness of Montana at the time, many residents saw little need to devote resources when they already had more than 17 million acres of public land in the state.
“In fact, in the 1920s not a single paved road crossed the state in its entirety and the total population of the state, the nation’s third largest geographically, was less than 600,000,” he wrote.
In 1925, new state forester Rutledge Parker took to lobbying for a state parks system and by 1929, a bill came before the Legislature. The initial bill failed, Conklin wrote, but eventually a bill was passed making Parker the director of state parks and authorizing the Board of Land Commissioners to establish new parks.
The bill came with no funding to support the new system, he wrote.
By the middle of the Great Depression a financially strapped state still had failed to fund its park system. Then came President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and $300 million for nationwide park improvements, Conklin wrote.
In 1934, Parker succeeded in creating a State Recreation Committee operated through the state Chamber of Commerce, Conklin wrote. By the next year, the State Land Board accepted a donation from the Northern Pacific Railroad establishing Morrison Cave, now called Lewis and Clark Caverns, as Montana’s first state park.
In its first year, nearly 4,000 people toured the caverns for an admission price of 75 cents for adults and 25 cents for children providing funding for the parks system in its infancy, he wrote.
Parker again succeeded in 1939, lobbying with the Kiwanis clubs for a bill that established a state parks central design office and funded land acquisition and materials. The bill created the first State Parks System and Land Commission and is considered the official beginning of state parks in Montana, Conklin wrote.
The next two decades saw numerous state parks added to the system such as Lone Pine, Bannack and the Smith River. In 1953, State Parks took another turn with authority shifting to the State Highway Commission and the abolishment of the State Parks Commission after falling nearly $24,000 into debt, according to the Montana State Parks website.
The 1960s were a time of major change in recreation throughout the nation, with the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which required strategic planning. The Highway Commission was preparing to drop 12 parks from its system before the Legislature stepped in and transferred authority to the Fish and Game Commission in 1965. The change would allow the state to apply for federal funding to support the park system, Conklin wrote.
In 1979, Fish and Game changed its name to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. By 1987, parks no longer received money through the general fund, making it sustain through camping and vehicle admission fees. In 2004, an annual fee tied to vehicle registrations eliminated entrance fees for residents, the website said.
The last major shift for Parks came last year, when the Legislature created the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board. Parks is the only division of FWP that has its own board.
Montana versus other states
Montana’s low population and wide expanses of public land still impact the management of state parks, with 54 parks and a $7,555,000 million budget.
“It is a harder sell with all the access that we’ve got here,” said FWP Director Jeff Hagener. “It’s been a discussion over the years, asking if Parks gets its due with so many issues going on with hunting and fishing.”
A major issue facing all parks from national to state to city is educating users on just who manages them and how funding comes. A typical recreationist might recognize that a park is publically or privately owned, but not fully understand or care whether it’s a state, city or federal facility, said Chas Van Genderen, Montana State Parks director.
“Funding doesn’t cross over very often, and we haven’t made enough strides in how we share,” he said of working with the Helena City Parks Department. “We’re just getting started on that as a park system.”
Funding for Montana’s system ranks near the bottom for the region. Idaho funds its 30 state parks at $16 million while Washington’s 117 parks operate at $60 million. Wyoming collects $1.8 million in fees and appropriates $9 million from its general fund for 40 parks while Utah’s 43 state parks operate with a $28.2 million budget. New Mexico sees $21 million for 35 parks and Colorado spends $25 million for its 44 parks.
Only North Dakota spends less at $6.67 million, but for only 13 parks. It is also important to note that state parks’ departments may also manage other sites besides parks and their operating budget includes that funding.
Higher funding does not necessarily mean a rosy picture for parks in other states, however, as general funding has dropped in New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Colorado.
Amid statewide budget issues, in 2010 Arizona eliminated much of its general funding for parks and income from lottery, leading to 50 positions being cut and its board voting to close 13 of 28 parks. Public and private entities reorganized to keep all but five state parks open that year, according to Montana State Parks planning documents.
“All the states say pretty much the same thing — that there’s a real stretch in funding them,” Hagener said.
With money from hunting and fishing license sales legally tied to wildlife management in order to receive additional federal funding, the public often does not understand that Parks does not receive license dollars, he said.
“It’s just not as simple as we have ‘X’ millions of dollars,” Hagener said. “We’re all in one agency but we have to be very careful how we spend money.”
Officials and the board are taking a hard look at what state parks in Montana will look like in the future, with discussions ranging from how best to allocate funding to possible divestment of some parks.
“The board is looking at more parks than most surrounding states, and as we’re stressed more and more, we question if this park or that park should be a state park,” Hagener said. “We have to look at what’s sustainable long-term, and what we have right now adds up pretty quickly.”
For many years, city or county parks found their way into the state parks system as local communities struggled to fund them. While the parks can become a focal point for a community, the board is asking whether they meet the overarching goal of benefiting the state of Montana.
“These belong to all the citizens of Montana,” Van Genderen said. “Once it’s yours it’s hard to give back, and the board is asking these hard questions: ‘What should a state park be?’ We have to be discriminating.”
Budget issues have meant an increasing emphasis on partnerships with public and private entities to get by.
Volunteers often staff campgrounds for little more than a campsite for the summer, and nonprofit groups may help with various projects and maintenance. But also putting Parks at a disadvantage in the agency are the highly organized advocacy groups for fish and wildlife compared to the typically less organized users of state parks, Van Genderen said.
“I don’t know how we get it all done,” he said. “We need to look at sustainable funding, strategic partnerships and do a better job engaging our constituents.”
One major supporter of Montana State Parks is Our Montana Inc., which started as the Montana State Parks Association more than a decade ago.
The Billings-based nonprofit does historical work in the parks and encourages local friends’ groups to advocate for parks locally in their areas. Despite Montana’s small population, other states with small populations have found ways to more robustly fund their park systems, said executive director Robbie Carpenter.
Founder Paul Hickman recognized the need for advocacy on behalf of Montana’s parks, said Mike Penfold, field program director.
Penfold made a tour of Montana’s parks and wrote a report. What he found was enlightening and alarming, he said.
“Volunteerism is really helping keep it together, and with the interest in outdoor recreation, I was glad to see we have a really good staff and leadership,” Penfold said. “I was sorry to see the degree we’ve been unwilling to fund the system, and tourism is the second largest industry in the state.”
A 2010 study showed that more than 2 million people visited state parks, generating nearly $300 million in revenue.
“What you really realize is that people don’t come to Montana to stay in hotels,” he said. “They may come here for a conference, but that’s because of the amenities with the outdoors.”
Despite state parks’ importance to the state, the agency is so strapped for funding that it has to turn away volunteers in some cases because they do not have the staffing to even manage volunteers, Penfold said.
While he is disappointed in what he calls sluggish recognition by the Legislature of the importance of tourism by failing to adequately fund parks, the creation of the Parks Board is a step in the right direction, Penfold said.
“It really elevated the Parks system within FWP,” he said. “We need to make the best of what we’ve got here that creates so many jobs and keeps money in the state.”