Cooler inside the caverns

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is a popular destination for visitors.

Montana State Parks photo

Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday announced the formation of a 12-member panel tasked with studying and making recommendations about the future of Montana State Parks.

Last summer, Bullock launched the “Parks in Focus” initiative to identify long-term solutions to the opportunities and challenges faced by Montana’s State Parks system. The initiative would focus on ways to implement the parks division 2020 strategic plan by prioritizing diversified revenue streams, growing strategic partnerships and building constituent support.

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Hotel Mead at Bannack

The 50 buildings at Bannack State Park vary from one-room log cabins to a multi-room wood-frame house, a church, sod-roofed jail, saloons, a two-story combination Masonic lodge and school and stores. The Hotel Mead is pictured here.

On Friday Bullock formalized the initiative with an executive order forming the Montana Parks in Focus Commission. The 12 members of the panel represent various businesses and nonprofits along with tribal and legislative members.

“Parks in Focus will deliver results and accountability to the state parks and recreation strategic plan, while also ensuring that … financial, operational and cultural challenges facing state parks are addressed under the management of (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks),” Bullock said on a press call announcing the commission.

The order activates the commission for a term of 12 months and it will hold four yet-to-be determined meetings around the state. The panel will work with the governor’s office, FWP leadership and staff, the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board and the Montana State Parks Foundation. A final recommendations report is due next December under the charter.

“I’m excited that they’re both willing to step up and provide resources, ideas and expertise to address something that I think is very very important to all Montanans,” Bullock said. “It’s a great group of folks willing to roll up their sleeves and dive into this.”

Director Martha Williams, who last year vowed support for parks as she took the helm of FWP, called the panel a great step for the department.

“Our state parks play a critical role in Montana as way for people to learn about and enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I’m grateful for the governor’s persistent support of our parks and this effort is important for moving parks forward.”

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Buffalo Jump State Park overall view

Buffalo bones still lie buried at the cliff's base, and archaeologists have located the tipi rings of an extensive village at Buffalo Jump State Park, south of Three Forks.

Montana State Parks faces a number of hardships.

Parks is funded and staffed comparatively lower than other states with a budget that was slashed in both the regular and special sessions last year. The division has an overall budget of about $8 million, but faces a $22 million maintenance backlog.

In the last year the division’s administrator and board chairman were dismissed while another board member resigned. Legislators and the media began looking into millions in unspent funds. Bullock also vetoed a bill  that would have put the hiring and firing of the head of state parks under the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, rather than the FWP director. 

Despite those issues, at the same time visitation has skyrocketed to record levels.

Bullock does not have preconceived goals about parks funding, but says he comes from the premise that parks are valued by Montanans and local communities. That premise does not ignore the maintenance backlog, understaffing coming to a head with increasing visitation, and that “parks can’t always meet the needs and expectations of visitors.”

Addressing funding issues and building support may also alleviate other aspects of the strategic plan, namely prioritizing parks and in some cases, even divestment of parks, he said.

Last November, Beth R. Shumate was hired as administrator of Montana State Parks. Both she and Williams identified budget issues and bolstering funding as top priorities.

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

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