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The head of Montana State Parks would be hired and fired by the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board rather than the director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, under a bill heard by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee on Tuesday.

Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, brought House Bill 324, saying that his observations as a legislator led him to conclude that State Parks needs more autonomy from an agency often dominated by fish and wildlife issues. Having a Parks executive director hired by the board while keeping administrative duties, such as budgeting, with FWP, was the most painless way of providing that autonomy without creating a new agency, he said.

The bill comes after former State Parks administrator Chas Van Genderen was fired last year by retiring FWP director Jeff Hagener. Hamlett asked for HB324 to be drafted before the termination, but the move seemed to further cement the representative’s position, calling the firing without board involvement “disingenuous.”

“I think there was a turf war going on here,” Hamlett said. “I think this bill offers a solution going forward that’s fair to fish and wildlife and fair to parks, and I don’t think the director of parks should serve at the pleasure of the fish and wildlife director.”

In 2013 following a recommendation from the Environmental Quality Council, legislation passed forming the parks board, independent of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The move has not solved a continued rift between divisions, Hamlett believes, and HB324 would allow those divisions to better focus on their missions.

Member of the State Trails Advisory Committee Frank LaLiberty spoke in support of the bill. Trails are largely seeing increased usage but decreased maintenance, and more autonomy for Parks would allow better focus on recreation needs.

Coordinator for the Montana State Parks Foundation Marne Hayes also voiced support for HB324.

“We believe it gives State Parks the autonomy it deserves, that has been long withstanding,” she testified, citing record-setting visitation numbers and community ties to local parks.

Parks volunteer Bob Walker noted his frustration to the committee at a seeming lack of interest from FWP in parks issues brought before the Legislature, noting that the department did not request a recreation bill this session.

“It doesn’t appear to them and to us that the leadership of FWP devotes adequate if hardly any time to parks and recreation,” he said. “It sends a message to the community and Montana.”

Speaking against HB324 was Paul Sihler, chief of staff for FWP, saying that the bill eliminates the chain of command and accountability critical to good governance.

Before the Montana Constitution was updated in the 1970s, the state government included more than 100 agencies and many boards unaccountable to the governor, described by Sihler as, “a collection of individual fiefdoms.” Under the current system, the directors of agencies such as FWP are hired or removed by the governor, and the parks administrator hired or removed by the FWP director.

While State Parks faces many challenges from budgeting woes to maintenance backlogs, HB324 “seems to exaggerate these problems rather than solve them,” Sihler testified.

Under questioning from committee members, Sihler further noted that the separation creates some complicated questions about federal funding spent on things such as fishing access sites that later became state parks, and whether some of that money would have to be paid back.

Hamlett balked at the federal funding issue, saying his understanding was that federal funding would not be jeopardized as long as Parks remains attached to FWP administratively. 

Former State Parks administrator Doug Monger voiced strong opposition to the bill, saying that similar arrangements such as the Montana Heritage Commission’s loose ties to the Department of Commerce, lacked oversight and made resource allocation difficult.

“If this bill came up on my watch I’d be really embarrassed,” he said. “There’s been a derailment here. Parks hasn’t been doing their job, or the agency hasn’t been doing their job.”

Monger described the divisions in FWP as a sibling rivalry, and he said rather than the history of divisiveness the department would benefit from more inclusiveness.

“If you’re not talking today and you’re in the same agency, heads need to be cracked,” he said.

Hamlett closed on his bill addressing Monger's comments.

“The problem I see with banging heads is that Parks always loses and gets the concussion and gets the (Parks administrator) fired,” he said.

Hamlett said he believed that much of the perceived conflict comes from funding, who has it and who controls where it goes.

The committee did not take immediate action on HB324.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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