HELENA – Now 75 years old, 55 parks strong and drawing 2.1 million visits last year, Montana State Parks celebrated its birthday Tuesday morning in the Capitol Rotunda.
There was art – an original painting by Missoula’s Monte Dolack – along with music performed by Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg of Chester, and the sharing of a new book on the parks written by Erin Madison and Kristen Inbody.
The parks got their start when President Theodore Roosevelt transferred Lewis and Clark Caverns to the state of Montana in the mid-1930s.
In 1939, the state Legislature created a state parks commission, Chas Van Genderen, administrator of Montana State Parks, told the crowd. And within two years Lone Pine, Missouri Headwaters and Yellow Bay state parks followed.
“Montanans have chosen to protect these special places,” he said. They’re places for families to explore nature and its rich recreational, national and cultural heritage.
“Where else can you stand on top of a buffalo jump?” he asked, or explore some of the most fabulous limestone caverns in the western United States.
The parks are drawing a record number of visits, Gov. Steve Bullock told the gathering. Visits in 2013 were up 5 percent from 2012.
“We’re celebrating a system that showcases seven national historic landmarks, Montana’s beautiful landscapes, its nature and wildlife,” Bullock said.
The parks offer opportunities for Montanans to learn about the state’s cultural heritage, as well as have fun hiking, swimming, picnicking, camping and relaxing.
Not only are the parks treasured, but they generate a lot of money for the Montana economy.
“Local economies thrive – $300 million was generated for Montana’s local communities,” which sustains 1,600 related jobs in tourism each year, Bullock said.
He urged Montanans to head for the outdoors. “Families can leave their computers and tablets behind and see, touch and feel the outdoors firsthand.”
The highlight of Tuesday’s celebration was the unveiling of Dolack’s painting, “Smith River in June.”
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As he and Bullock removed the black cloth shrouding the painting, there were appreciative “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd.
The Smith River has been on Dolack’s mind ever since a snowy May float trip on the river 24 years ago. So when Dolack was commissioned to do a painting in honor of the 75th anniversary, he decided to return to the Smith last June for a five-day float during a “supermoon,” a full moon at the closest point of its orbit to Earth.
And the moon, and its illumination of the curving river and its towering cliffs, couldn’t be more dazzling.
Paraphrasing one of his companions on the river, Dolack said, “It’s beautiful, glorious, mesmerizing, tranquil, magnificent, quiet and perfect.”
Because it is a priceless and magical waterway, “the headwaters of the Smith may not be the best place to locate a large-scale copper mine, which currently has approval,” he said.
The painting will be on display in the Capitol throughout the 75th anniversary year, and all proceeds from the sales of prints will go to the state parks.
By making the painting and poster, “I hope it helps people get out and protect our state parks,” Dolack said.
To make this exploration easier, a new book was recently released: “Montana State Parks – Complete Guide and Travel Companion,” by Madison and Inbody.
A portion of the book’s proceeds benefit Montana State Parks.
Closing out Tuesday’s ceremony was Aaberg performing his composition, “Marias River Breakdown,” which he wrote in 1984.
“It was not a state park then,” he said, “but became one a few years ago.”
For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov.