BILLINGS – The discovery that a portion of a Flathead Lake state park is in violation of federal regulations will end up costing the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks thousands of dollars in appraisals.
“It will require appraisals under federal standards, and it will be costly,” Jeff Hagener, FWP director, told the Fish and Wildlife Commission at its Thursday meeting. “We may have to divert money from other programs.”
The problem was discovered about six months ago as FWP personnel dug through old files to try to understand which state parks had encumbrances. The search was prompted by a 2011 legislative bill that sought to move Montana State Parks out of FWP and into the Commerce Department. The bill did not pass, although state parks is still considering a move.
Out of Montana’s 55 state parks, 16 were flagged with encumbrances related to their purchase being wholly or partly funded with federal dollars, meaning the land must meet specific requirements. “The use of these funding sources requires that the lands remain under the direction of the director of the fish and wildlife agency and be utilized for their original purpose,” according to the agenda item given commissioners.
Fifteen of the parks are OK as long as Montana State Parks stays under FWP’s roof, while one has been flagged for immediate attention.
A portion of the 139-acre West Shore State Park – which features a campground, boat launch, beach and picnic area – is encumbered with federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements that it provide wildlife habitat. That’s because 73 acres of the park were originally purchased through a land exchange. The land the department provided in the 1960s-era exchange was paid for with federal funding to provide wildlife habitat. When the lands were exchanged the encumbrance went to the then-newly purchased Flathead Lake property.
“We didn’t even realize this encumbrance was on there,” said Sue Daly, chief of Administration for FWP. “Once you’re aware of it, though, you have to deal with it.”
So FWP contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how to proceed. Failure to resolve the issue could jeopardize funding that FWP receives from USFWS – specifically Pittman-Robertson, State Wildlife Grant and Dingell-Johnson funding. The agency has already received about $27 million from these federal funds this year.
To make things right, FWP has to find other properties it owns that have wildlife values and can match the price of the Flathead Lake land.
“It has to be a dollar-for-dollar exchange,” Daly said.
Therein lies the rub. Flathead lakefront property is priced by the foot. The valuation could easily climb to more than $5 million.
Paul Sihler, FWP chief of staff, told the commission that the department’s lands division has some concerns that the West Shore State Park land’s value may exceed all of the other properties combined.
“We’re not sure it’s going to get resolved through exchanges,” Sihler said.
FWP’s staff has identified the Marias, Yellowstone River and North Shore wildlife management areas – which are scattered across the state – as possibilities, Daly said. The West Shore State Park encumbrance could then be transferred to those lands, but not without a cost.
“If this looks like a viable solution, we would need a yellow book appraisal,” Daly said.
Yellow book appraisals, the shorthand term for Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions, are required by the USFWS and have a timeline for completion.
Diverting money from other FWP funds to pay for appraisals won’t be painless for FWP. Last legislative session the agency sought an increase in licensing fees to try and cover its ever-rising budget. The staff also continues to seek other sources of funding to help with the management of expensive species like wolves and, soon, grizzly bears. FWP receives no state general fund dollars, relying instead on the sale of fishing and hunting licenses for its funding.
Meanwhile, Montana State Parks’s staff and board has been ranking its parks to prioritize funding for its most important sites. The agency has ruffled feathers in eastern Montana with a proposal to possibly walk away from Hell Creek State Park on Fort Peck Reservoir in 2021 in part because the millions of dollars required to upgrade the facility far exceeds what could be recouped through visitation.
If Montana State Parks were to move to a different department, like the Department of Commerce, the other 15 identified parks would have to stay behind under FWP management, helping to reduce Montana State Parks’ overhead. But that’s not a goal, said Tom Towe, president of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board.
“We believe that can be worked out with a memorandum of understanding,” he said, leasing the sites from FWP and ceding management of fish and wildlife issues to the agency.
The 15 parks are spread across the state and vary from little-visited to some of the top spots in the state, including: Brush, Wayfarers, Smith River (which includes Eden Bridge and Camp Baker), Finley Point, Lone Pine, Logan, Lake Elmo, Missouri Headwaters, Beavertail Hill, Greycliff Prairie Dog Town, Sluice Boxes, Lake Mary Ronan, Lost Creek, Giant Springs and Spring Meadow Lake.
Some of the 16, such as Greycliff Prairie Dog Town, already have been questioned by state parks administrator Chas Van Genderen as to whether they fit the definition of a state park. Places like Lake Elmo, in Billings Heights; Giant Springs, in Great Falls; and Spring Meadow Lake, in Helena, seem more suited as city parks.
The State Parks and Recreation Board will take up the issue at its next meeting on Thursday, April 21, in Miles City at FWP headquarters starting at 8:30 a.m. The board will tour Hell Creek State Park on Wednesday.