Five of Montana's 60 state parks would be turned over to the federal government and the other parks would charge entrance fees under a proposal aired recently before the state Fish and Game Commission.
The entrance fees would generate up to $400,000 a year, while ceding management of five parks back to federal agencies that own the land would save more than $100,000, according to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.The state park system is badly underfunded and the additional revenue would be used for major park improvements, better maintenance and services, said Don Hyyppa, parks division administrator.
Hyyppa said the agency will seek approval for one of three entrance-fee alternatives:
-One would require that every park user age 15 and older purchase an annual "state park passport" for $5, which would generate an estimated $406,250 in the first year. No single-visit or one-day permits would be available.
-Under a second alternative, single-visit permits would be the only type available. They would cost from 50 cents to $1 and would be required of every park visitor age 12 and older. This would generate an estimated $325,000 in the first year.
-A third plan would require either an annual park passport or a single-visit permit for any park visitor age 12 and up. The annual permit would cost $10, the single-visit permit would cost from 50 cents to $1 and the plan would generate an estimated $349,372 during the first year.
"Montana is one of the few states in the nation that does not have a park entrance fee," Hyyppa told the commission, adding that all but 12 states charge such fees, including all of Montana's neighbors except Wyoming.
Four Montana state parks do charge entry fees: Lake Elmo near Billings, Spring Meadow Lake near Helena, Whitefish Lake and a park on Flathead Lake. The fees generate about $45,000 a year.
"Public feeling about this is going to be very important," Hyyppa said, adding that the department hopes to make a recommendation to the commission as early as next month.
The commission then would hold public hearings before giving final approval to a fee plan, and the department would begin collecting the fees on May 15, Hyyppa said.
The five state parks whose management would be handed back to federal agencies are: Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena, the state's most heavily-used recreation area; Lost Creek Canyon near Anaconda; Hell Creek and James Kipp rec-reation areas near Fort Peck Reservoir; and Nelson Reservoir near Malta.
"We've got about a million-dollar-a-year problem" of underfunding, said Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jim Flynn. "I just don't see any good alternatives out there on the near horizon" that might allow the state to retain management of the five areas.
"They may, in fact, be better managed under a federal agency" because considerably more funding would be available, said Fish and Game Commissioner Don Bailey of Forsyth.
Several people who lease cabin sites on Canyon Ferry Reservoir attended the Helena meeting and opinion was divided on whether transfer to the federal government after 30 years of state management is a good idea.
"I'm not in favor of hassling with the federal government," said lessee Dee Cooper. "I'd rather deal with people here in Montana."