State Parks deserve investment

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With our rivers running high and our hillsides lush and green, Iím guessing our summer recreation season here in Montana is going to break another record.

That means it will be even busier than last year. We can expect more people on the trails. It will be harder to secure your favorite campsite and the rivers access points will be congested with vehicles and gear.

Do you wonder where this is all headed? I do. Most of us live in Montana because of the incredible access to public lands we all enjoy. And more and more folks are moving to Montana for the same reasons. With increased growth comes increased pressure on our outdoor infrastructure.

Whatís an outdoor infrastructure? Iím speaking about the investments that facilitate Montanaís love affair with the great outdoors. Do you like hiking or biking? You need trails. Camping? You need campsites. And usually a toilet. Rafting or angling? You need boat ramps. Wardens and managers are also required to keep things peaceful, clean, and family-friendly.

These investments are crucial for our outdoor way of life. The trouble is, we havenít invested in decades, and a prime example of that is Montanaís state park system. Visitation to our state parks is up 50 percent since 2011, but outdoor infrastructure investments have not kept pace with the demand.

For a state with the natural assets Montana has, we should have one of the best state park systems in the country. Instead, we have one suffering from neglect. In fact, Montana funds its state parks at just two-thirds the level of our neighboring states. Funding and maintenance backlogs in our state parks is so bad that places like Sluice Boxes literally have no staff on site most days of the week. Makoshika, arguably the stateís finest state park, a place our Governor called the ďGlacier of the EastĒ, has just 20 campsites on 11,000 acres and no potable water. Fish Creek, west of Missoula, sits idle, awaiting campsites and restrooms.

These chronic issues are why Governor Bullock convened the Montana Parks in Focus Commission earlier this year. Iím a member of this group of citizens tasked with figuring out how to resolve decadesí worth of studies that all say the same thing - Montanaís state parks system needs serious attention and serious advocates.

Our commission has been busy looking for fresh solutions and creative revenue sources for Montanaís state parks. Our goal is to provide new recommendations to the Governorís office and ensure that all of us who enjoy hiking, boating and exploring are working together to help solve the growing problems that continue to plague our state parks.

Weíve got our work cut out for us because a lot of this will come down to finding new resources and revenue. Resources will be needed to pay for the public improvements at Makoshika and Fish Creek, invest in public boat ramps and parking facilities on our lake sites, provide more bike-friendly campgrounds, build trails connecting our parks to nearby towns, and provide adequate staffing to ensure clean, family-friendly camping.

But our commission canít do this in a vacuum. We need your help. You, the mountain biker. You, the angler and wildlife enthusiast. You, the weekend warrior. You know who you are. Come to our next public meeting this Friday, May 11th, at the Montana FWP Region 1 headquarters in Kalispell, or submit comments to www.chartinganewtomorrow.com/parks-in-focus.

Working together, we can craft made-in-Montana solutions to address the rising demands of outdoor recreation and make our state parks system as healthy and strong as the people who enjoy them.

Jeff Welch is a founding member of the Montana State Parks Foundation and is a member of the Montana State Parks Board and Montana Parks in Focus Commission.

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