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MT - Montana State Parks continues to wrestle with downsizing

Dec 15, 2016

Next year Montana State Parks will take steps to increase staffing at its premier sites by transferring employee hours from less-visited parks.

Lake Elmo State Park meets the guidelines for discussions by the Montana State Parks for places that could be co-managed with community park boards as a way to save the state's employees for other, more popular parks.

“We said we needed 10 (full-time equivalent employees), but we’ve only redirected three plus,” said Chas Van Genderen, parks administrator. “So we still have a gap of seven.”

This is the next step in the agency’s move to concentrate resources at its more prestigious and most-visited properties while stepping back from sites that see fewer tourists. It has not been an easy process and continues to vex the parks division’s staff, as well as the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, which met in Helena on Wednesday.

Balancing act

Deeper cuts in staffing at such parks will need to be a “top down exercise,” Van Genderen told the board, because it’s too hard for staff to recommend changes.

Another means to transfer employee allocation that Van Genderen has undertaken is talking to communities that contain state parks — like Helena about Green Meadow State Park — to devise some type of partnership.

“We’re extremely short on staff, and each of these communities have a park board, but we’re not having any dialogue about increasing efficiencies,” Van Genderen said. “So why don’t we look at a new model?”

“It makes so much sense,” said Tom Towe, chairman of the parks board. “I think that’s the best thing we can do.”

Sideboards

Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, urged the board to develop a policy for such agreements before having discussions with communities.

“I believe you do need something to guide the conversation,” she said, and to ensure any agreement “achieves the goal of seeing these places better stewarded.”

Towe countered that the board would want to be flexible to adapt to different situations. Board member Mary Sexton agreed, saying any memorandum of understanding would lay out the particulars.

“To set things out now is a bit premature,” Sexton said.

Opposition

So far Montana State Parks’ attempts to reallocate some resources have met with strong public opposition and outcry.

“We’ve had a pretty tumultuous year as a division,” Van Genderen said, starting with the announcement late last year that it planned to seek other partners to help out at Hell Creek State Park at Fort Peck Reservoir or it may walk away from the site in 2021.

Since then the division has identified Ackley Lake and Painted Rocks state parks as low-hanging fruit ripe for some other entity to take over and manage because they don’t fit the agency’s new definitions. That’s caused some hard feelings as well as prompted legislator scrutiny.

But some board members, like Jeff Welch, said discussions about Montana State Parks’ allocation of its funding need to take place, even if folks are disappointed by the outcome. Comparisons with surrounding states showed Montana manages more parks with less money and staff.

“It’s like we’re working a minimum wage job and have 50 kids,” Welch said. “At some point this is the issue. There is an imbalance here. There just is.”

Wording

Welch and Towe disagreed over a proposal by Towe to emphasize to the public in a formal resolution that the state parks board does not plan to close parks or decrease public access to public lands, despite a proposal to leave Hell Creek if no financial solutions can be found.

“My concern is that we haven’t actually stated this,” Towe said.

“We’re not closing your park — we’re talking about running it more efficiently.”

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Park visitation up, again

Montana State Parks continue to be a popular place for the public to camp, boat, hike and visit. Visitation to the state’s 54 parks hit 2.66 million this year, a 41 percent increase since 2011 and the fifth straight year of increasing visitation, according to Chas Van Genderen, parks administrator. Managing those sites involved 45,000 hours of volunteer time, equal to 21 full-time employees, provided by more than 13,000 volunteers. In addition, AmeriCorps provided 21,000 hours of service, part of which helped conduct 26,500 educational programs.