The Montana State Parks and Recreation Board will hear the appeal of a nonprofit group on Friday that contends construction of a new water supply and sewer system at Hell Creek State Park illegally infringes on land used by Hell Creek Marina for its operations.
The 10 a.m. meeting is in Helena and will be live-streamed online.
The group, Friends of Hell Creek, has already had its appeal denied by the directors of Montana State Parks and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. A board ruling denying the plea would be the final nail in the coffin, unless the Friends take its argument to court.
No matter the outcome, the issue once again reveals disorganization within the state park agency despite its restructuring and the appointment of a new director in the wake of previous problems with the past director and parks board members.
The construction conflict has dragged on for more than a year due to a paperwork flub by Montana State Parks. The issue also arises in the wake of a 2015 decision by the previous parks board and administrator to not renew the lease for Hell Creek State Park from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2021 unless the cost of the facility can be shared with partners, since the park continually operates at a loss.
Despite concerns about the cost of operating and maintaining Hell Creek State Park, in August 2017 the agency approved a new 25,000 gallon potable water tank and fish cleaning station wastewater treatment system. The projected cost of the work has been estimated at $773,000.
The state justified making such expensive improvements to a park it had suggested it may abandon by citing human health and safety concerns.
The Friends of Hell Creek filed an appeal of the work, in part arguing the state had not negotiated with the Hell Creek Marina’s leaseholders, Deb and Clint Thomas, to place the facilities on land that was part of their 55-acre lease. James Gustafson, president of the nonprofit group, said the acting parks administrator in a July 2017 meeting specifically told the parks board that no action could take place without the Thomases’ approval. Minutes of that meeting support Gustafson’s assertion.
In the meantime, a 2018 legislative audit of Montana State Parks recommended the agency seek partners or alternate management teams to help at less popular parks like Hell Creek to cut operating costs. Last June, Friends of Hell Creek proposed to Gov. Steve Bullock that its members take over management of the park, arguing they could provide considerable cost savings. No response to that request was received, Gustafson said.
Then in August 2018 Gustafson was told by friends that work had begun on the Hell Creek project. He contacted new parks director Beth Shumate questioning how the work could start without a formal response to his group’s appeal.
To halt any more work before their complaints were heard, Friends of Hell Creek requested a temporary restraining order from a Garfield County District Court judge. A hearing was set, but Montana State Parks voluntarily agreed to halt construction.
Shortly afterward, the parks director denied the Friends’ appeal, arguing the state agency has every right to access the Thomases’ leased property for the maintenance of the park’s facilities. Any comment by the acting director that contradicted the language of the lease could not modify the actual agreement, Shumate wrote. She also added that Montana State Parks “has no plans to ‘close’ Hell Creek State Park.
“There are two entire recreational seasons yet to occur before the current (Army Corps of Engineers) lease concludes,” she wrote.
Running their concerns up the chain of command, the Friends appealed to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams, who also denied the group’s plea in a January 2018 letter. Williams acknowledged state parks suffered from a “paperwork error” in processing the original appeal, but wrote that since then the department had worked to resolve the issue quickly.
The Friday meeting of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board is now the last stop for the Friends of Hell Creek’s appeal. Gustafson is angry, saying the agency has violated its own appeal process by not openly communicating to resolve the group’s concerns.
“They ignore the truth so they can get this behind them,” he wrote in an email.
The parks board could rule as soon as Friday or take the issue under advisement. Until the board has ruled, no new date for re-starting construction at Hell Creek will be set, according to a park spokesman.
The board has also not yet scheduled any discussion about what to do with Hell Creek State Park before the current lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expires in 2021, although the previous board had said planning would begin in 2019.