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MT - No one wants to pay for state park improvements

Hell Creek State Park is not closing, nor did the Park Board vote to close it. It is a nice park, 26 miles north of Jordan, with 71 camp sites and a very good access to Fort Peck Lake.

The Park Board wants to keep Hell Creek State Park open and make it accessible for everyone to continue to enjoy. But as so often happens, no one wants to pay for it. The large increase in visitation has pushed the capability of the park to the limits. To continue we need some $4.5 million – almost half of our annual budget. And it is not even one of our most significant parks or our most significant needs.

Visitation throughout all 55 state parks has increased over the last five years by 32 percent, yet we have to provide the best services we can for the same budget we had five years ago. It is the smallest budget of any park system of the seven states in the Rocky Mountain West, except North Dakota and they only have 13 Parks to our 55. We are able to provide only 68 percent of the staffing provided by our peer states in the Rocky Mountain West and we have more parks.

Right now Hell Creek needs $1 million to put in a water system, $286,000 to put in a sewer system, and over $1.2 million to upgrade the electrical system. The staff has identified $1.48 million of high priority needs that must be met just to keep us going because of the health and safety concerns. We can’t expand the 71 camping sites until we put in a new water and sewer system. User fees normally only pay for about 29 percent of the costs of upkeep and maintenance. So where do we get the money?

Worse, if we had any money, it would have to go to Bannack State Park ($1.5 million) to put in a better fire system – we can’t let the best ghost town in America burn up – or to Lewis & Clark Caverns ($1.75 million) whose electrical system was installed in the 1930s by the CCC boys and is in danger of causing harm if it is not updated, or to Makoshika, which needs $1.3 million to provide water to its only campground. The first two of these three projects were in the Governor’s long-range building program which was defeated by the last session of the Legislature by one vote.

Currently Hell Creek is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and leased to the state to use as a park. The Park Board did notify the Army Corps of Engineers that when the existing lease comes up five years from now in 2021, we may not be able to renew it unless we can find some more money to run it. We had hoped that our landlord, the Army Corps of Engineers, might help us out a little with some money for the infrastructure; doing so would greatly improve their land. So far, the answer has been no.

We certainly hope we can find a solution. We have five years to do so. But if we can’t get any help from the Legislature or the Army Corps of Engineers or the local community, we may not be able to renew the lease. The Army Corps then will undoubtedly do as they have done in other cases, either contract it out to a concessionaire or run it themselves. I doubt if it will ever close. With 30,000 to 35,000 visitors a year, it is too popular and too important for that.

The one group that can help us the most is the Montana Legislature, which is now controlled by Republicans. If state Senator John Brenden would allow $4.5 million for the water, sewer, electrical, and other upgrades at Hell Creek in his infrastructure bill and if Senator Brenden can persuade his Republican colleagues to support it, we will be just fine. Or if Senator Brenden can persuade his colleagues to support a larger budget for the Parks Division, that would be the best way to make sure the state has the money to keep Hell Creek as a State Park when the lease terminates in 2021. The ball is in his court and there is no reason for him to criticize the governor.

If Senator Brenden, who has been critical of the Park Board and the Governor on this issue recently, is really concerned about Hell Creek as a State Park, I invite him to help us in the Legislature. He is in an excellent position to do so.

-- Tom Towe, Billings, is chairman of the Montana Parks and Recreation Board and former state legislator.

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