Depending on how campers feel, Montana may soon join the rest of the nation and start reserving state park campsites.
"This is one of those issues where, as people start planning their summer trips, our front desk is bombarded with phone calls," said Chas Van Genderen, parks director for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "It's become an expectation when you plan a trip."
If it passes public muster, the state could have a reservation program in place by 2011. Montana and Alaska are the only states without a reservation system for their parks. U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service campgrounds already have reservation systems nationwide.
Montana tried a pilot reservation system in the 1990s. Although popular, Van Genderen said it required too much staff time to be effective.
In the meantime, the old first-come, first-served system was breaking down. The biggest problem, FWP officials found, was the practice of occupying a campsite several days in advance of a weekend or holiday, usually with an empty car or boat trailer.
While that ensured the party its weekend space, it also denied other campers a spot. And it cost the holding party a day or two worth of extra fees.
"Now we're spending a lot of our energy trying to resolve campsite conflicts," Van Genderen said. "We use our staff time trying to chase down those folks who are trying to save campsites."
Adding the reservation system would allow larger parties like family reunions to get adjacent campsites instead of being scattered throughout the facility. And it would help those who plan such events get their logistics done weeks or even months in advance.
The second concern was making the reservations cost-effective. The state park system has about 640 designated campsites. That does not count allowed camping at some of the state's fishing access sites. By comparison, some individual state campgrounds elsewhere have 300 sites.
The new proposal would piggyback on Idaho's state park reservation system. Montana doesn't have enough state campsites to make a stand-alone system cost-effective. But Idaho wouldn't have to add much staff to take on Montana's offerings.
Idaho now works with a company called ReserveAmerica, which manages campsite reservations in 19 other state park networks. ReserveAmerica also handles the National Park Service, Forest Service and KOA private business campgrounds.
Montana campground fees are now $15 a night and not expected to change for at least a year. If implemented, the reservation system would add a $10 surcharge to that. The surcharge profits would be split between ReserveAmerica and Idaho.
The parks affected in the proposal are mostly around Flathead Lake and the Interstate 90 corridor. Northwestern Montana parks under consideration are Big Arm, Finley Point, Lake Mary Ronan, Logan, Thompson Falls, Wayfarers, West Shore and Whitefish Lake.
By coincidence, all three of the state parks near Missoula are in various stages of repair or renovation this spring. Salmon Lake State Park's picnic area and boat launch will open as usual on May 1, but the campground won't be ready until at least May 21. Placid Lake's state park will open May 1, but have part of its camping area closed until electrical hookups can be added. Beavertail Hill State Park will not open until Memorial Day, May 31.
Eastern Montana parks include Cooney Reservoir, Tongue River Reservoir, Brush Lake, Hell Creek and Makoshika. In southwestern Montana, the parks include Bannack, Black Sandy, Lewis and Clark Caverns and Missouri Headwaters state parks.
The deadline to comment on the proposal is May 18. E-mails can be sent to CampReservations @mt.gov. Paper comments can be mailed to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Attn: Campsite Reservations, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.