Money is short this year. Many agencies are stressed and revenues are down. Please, Legislators, don’t take it out on the Parks.
We have 55 great State Parks. Many are real gems such as Lewis and Clark Caverns – an underground wonderland, Bannack – the best ghost town in America, Makoshika – one of the 10 most under rated parks in America, and Rosebud Battlefield – the largest commitment of American troops to an Indian battle. If you haven’t been to First People’s Buffalo Jump or Medicine Rocks you should go; you are in for a real treat. Our Park system has 9 National Heritage Landmarks and 10 sites on the National Register of Historic Places plus 16 more sites that are eligible. That is more than any State but California. Montanans must and should look on our State Parks with pride. They are real jewels.
Outdoor recreation is on the increase. We will close 2016 with over 2.65 million visitors to our State Parks. That is up 42% since 2011. Yet our available funding does not reflect that kind of an increase. Our annual operating budget is slightly over $10 million. It is the smallest budget of any State in the Pacific Northwest, except North Dakota and they only have 13 State Parks to our 55. Staffing is at 68% of peer States.
Montana Parks receive no General Fund monies and no hunting or fishing license fee monies. Thus, the Parks Division was not asked to cut their budget this year. But funding is simply insufficient. Our largest source of funding ($3.8 million) is from a $6.00 fee people pay at the same time they register their car in exchange for free visitation to all 55 Montana State Parks, provided they do not opt out. We also receive a little money from a small coal tax trust fund ($730,000), some help from the bed tax ($1.8 million), Motorboat fuel tax ($1.3 million), and some revenue from camping fees and other earned revenue ($2.3 million). We have increased the camping and other fees but earned revenue covers less than 20% of our budget.
People expect Parks that are clean, well kept, well maintained and informative. A recent facility condition inventory found that we have a huge backlog of maintenance and infrastructure needs. Great West Engineering concluded we will need $22.5 million in the next 10 years just to continue providing the present level of service. We have a good reputation to uphold. But if visitation increases by 42% in the next 6 years, we simply will not be able to accommodate everyone. Something has to give.
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We are going to ask the legislature to increase our annual visitation fee paid by the car registration fee from $6 to $8. Eight dollars for an annual free pass to 55 State Parks does not seem unreasonable. Everyone is given the option to opt out and not pay the fee if they wish. The people of Montana do love their parks; 77% of the people do not opt out.
In addition, we are going to propose a local option. Counties who want more money for parks in their county can put an additional $2 increase in the car registration fee on the ballot in their county. If approved by the voters, 3/4ths of the additional revenue collected in that county would stay in that county to help develop and pay for county and city parks.
Finally, Governor Bullock’s infrastructure bill will authorize badly needed fire protection in Bannack, a new lighting system for Lewis and Clark Caverns, and improvements at Makoshika. We hope to add some more of the backlog infrastructure projects to that list, all out of our own ending fund balance.
We hope enough people who appreciate the value of our parks in Montana will support this modest request. It will go a long way to meeting the demands of 2.65 million visitors each year. We have some of the greatest State Parks in the country; now we need to maintain them so visitors can appreciate them. Once we get this funding stabilized, we then can work on developing our parks so they are even more accessible, attractive and informative for all Montanans to enjoy.
-- Tom Towe, of Billings, is chairman of the Montana Parks and Recreation Board and is a former legislator.