November is traditionally the month to give thanks. This month, I’m thankful to Montanans across the state who have helped shape the future direction of our wonderful state park system this past year.
Let me explain. I love our parks, and have dedicated myself to them. I chair the Montana Parks and Recreation Board. I also sit on the Montana Parks in Focus Commission — a citizen-led task force taking a hard look at the barriers holding back our Montana State Parks.
Those barriers have been discussed and well-studied for decades. Unfortunately, the same problems that have handicapped our parks for 30 years are still at play today.
Tasked by the governor to break this cycle and find lasting results, the Parks in Focus Commission recently released draft recommendations after 10 months of hard work and public meetings. They also provided a public comment window for all Montanans to give feedback. The citizen commission will use this public input to finalize recommendations next month.
The initial recommendations build on decades of identified barriers, and provide a clear vision for pulling parks out of the rut they’ve been stuck in. I think these recommendations fundamentally provide a strong foundation for the future of our parks and a practical business strategy that is already on its way to being implemented.
For example, the Montana State Parks Division has taken the last year to reflect and be strategic. With new leadership and departmental synergy, the Parks Division is working hard to steady itself and build a sustainable future by putting new systems in place, improving financial accountability, creating an "open for business" culture, and categorizing parks in a way that Montanans desire.
Now, we just need to accelerate these positive changes already occurring at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Fortunately, the final Parks in Focus recommendations can provide a roadmap to get that done.
But real change takes time, and for this effort to last and be successful in the future it will need to rely heavily on an engaged constituency of supporters and dedicated partners. One of the best partners in the state is the not-for-profit Montana State Parks Foundation. This group is already doing an incredible job raising the profile of parks and engaging local businesses as well as others in much needed project work. Their help building a movement for park lovers is exactly what our parks need.
But that’s not all our parks will need. Ultimately, our state parks will need new and more diversified funding streams from public and private sources. No matter how you cut it, our parks are facing a looming crisis stemming from growing demand for basic services and severe funding shortfalls.
The draft recommendations released last month identify a list of funding options including strengthening public funding through the upcoming state legislature in addition to new strategies that would increase revenue generation at state parks themselves.
Right now, we have the energy and the focus to make real change — but it’s going to take us all to keep this momentum going strong. Thank you to my citizen colleagues on the Parks in Focus Commission for your dedicated work. And thank you to Montanans from Glasgow to Frenchtown, from Libby to Three Forks, who have all participated in this unfolding conversation.