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It can be exceedingly frustrating to pack up the family for a night or two of camping at one of Montana’s excellent public campgrounds, only to arrive and find the last spot “taken” by a large cooler parked on a picnic table.

Apparently it’s no picnic for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff, either. They are the folks who have to resolve any disputes over who gets to lay claim to which campsites, and for how long. It’s no wonder they are proposing a campsite reservation program for the state.

A reservation system akin to those already available in every other state in the nation, except Alaska, would not only help ease a few headaches at FWP – it would also help a lot of Montanans iron out potential kinks in our own travel plans.

After all, the latest numbers from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana show that last summer, travelers spent more money, on average, at campgrounds in Montana than at hotels. Apparently, more vacationers spent more nights camping than staying at a hotel, probably because they were bargain-hunting during a tough economy. And it didn’t hurt that moderately low gas prices encouraged more RVers to hit the roads – and tour the campsites.

For budget-friendly accommodations, it’s tough to beat $15 per night. Under the FWP proposal, regular camping fees would stay the same, but those making reservations would pay an additional $10 a night.

Some Montanans may remember the state’s previous experiment with reservations some years back. While the system proved popular, the state could not find a way to make it cost-effective. In order to make the numbers pencil out this time, Montana’s stock of campgrounds would be added to Idaho’s for the purpose of handling reservations, and the whole system would be run by ReserveAmerica, a company with extensive experience in the campsite reservations business.

If approved, a reservation system won’t be ready by this summer season – but such a system could be in place by 2011. First, however, it will need public support from Montanans.

That support should be readily forthcoming. A reservation system would greatly aid Montanans in our summer planning, free up FWP employees from having to referee arguments over campsites, and keep campers from paying camping fees for nights they don’t intend to stay just to ensure they get a spot.

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