The state of Montana budgets about $9.8 million a year to operate and maintain its 55 state parks, which have an estimated $23 million in deferred maintenance needs.
The 2019 Legislature laid a foundation for starting to chip away at that maintenance backlog and to bolster the meager operating funds that result in minimal or no staffing a parks that host more the 2.5 million visits per year.
Help for Montana State Parks is in Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, which went to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk with bipartisan support. We hope and expect Bullock to sign SB24 because it's a great deal for Montanans. The bill raised the optional $6 parks fee on annual vehicle registrations to $9. The fee is still optional, so those who don't want to pay, simply subtract the parks fee from what they owe.
Fortunately, more than 80 percent of vehicle owners do pay the fee, which is the single largest source of support for our state parks. Montana State Parks receive no general fund money. Instead, about a third of parks revenue comes from the vehicle registration fees, 22 percent from park fees, such as camping; 19 percent from the state lodging use tax, 11 percent boat and fuel decals and 10 percent coal tax.
The $3 boost in the option vehicle fee is projected to generate about $2 million per year after it takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020. That money will accumulate in a special park revenue account, but it cannot be spent until the 2021 Legislature approves it as part of the next biennial budget.
Where will that extra three bucks go?
- About $170,000 a year will be directed to state fishing access sites, doubling support now provided by the vehicle fee.
- About $940,000 a year will go to a new grant program for trails, which was the top parks priority according to Montanans surveyed last year by the Governor's Parks in Focus Commission. The grant program will be available to help fund trail projects of tribal and local government, school districts and recreational organizations. It will launch in 2022.
- About $892,000 will go to the rest of the state park system.
So as we cheer the passage of this step toward taking proper care of state parks, we call on Montanans who use their parks to keep advocating for them — for Makoshika, Hell Creek, Smith River, Tongue River Reservoir, Lake Elmo, Cooney Reservoir, Chief Plenty Coups historical park, Pictograph Caves and all the others you enjoy. The 2019 Legislature and Bullock have found a way to improve funding, but park lovers must stay involved to tell Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks what they want. The 2021 Legislature must hear from constituents that our parks are valuable and deserve adequate funding for well planned improvements and efficient operation.
We will thank Bullock in advance for signing SB24 because there are 55 compelling reasons why it should be law and zero rational arguments against it. Nevertheless, 10 Yellowstone County Republicans voted no.
Republicans and Democrats who supported Gauthier's bill deserve credit. Among the 65 representatives voting yes for parks, were these folks whose districts include parts of Yellowstone County: Jade Bahr, Geraldine Custer, Frank Fleming, Jessica Karjala, Kathy Kelker, Emma Kerr Carpenter, Bill Mercer, Sharon Stewart-Peregoy and Daniel Zolnikov. Among the 33 senators voting for parks were Duane Ankney, Jen Gross, Margie MacDonald, Mary McNally and Tom Richmond. Thanks, legislators, for investing in parks, trails and public fishing access.