MAKOSHIKA CAMPGROUND UPGRADES CALLED FOR
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Further improving the visitor facilities at Makoshika State Park to increase tourism to the park and Glendive is first and foremost in the minds of local park advocates, and those feelings were made quite clear to the Montana State Parks & Recreation Board.
The board, which is less than a year into its existence after its creation by the 2013 Montana Legislature, held its quarterly meeting Wednesday at the Makoshika visitor center.
Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison told the board the city wants to help keep the park accessible and improve it where it can, pointing to a situation a couple of years ago where a heavy rain washed out a culvert along the road leading into the park and the city shared the cost of repair with the state.
“The only reason I’m mentioning this is to show the cooperation between the city and the state park,” Jimison said. “The City of Glendive has always been willing to do what it can to promote Makoshika.”
While Jimison expressed hopes that the state would continue to invest in improving the park’s road, one proposed visitor enhancement project took center stage in his comments.
“You’ve all heard the saying build it and they will come,” Jimison told the board. “Well the build it and they will come comment here is in reference to the park’s campground.”
Getting services and other improvements to the campground is crucial to making Makoshika a true destination for tourists, Jimison argued.
“We all know that expanding and improving that campground is the key to improving tourism to the park,” he said.
Jimison added the city was “committed” to working with the state to bring city water out to the campground and working as a partner to bring services and improvements to Makoshika.
Friends of Makoshika member Jim Swanson followed Jimison, and echoed his comments to the board.
“Makoshika needs a lot of TLC,” Swanson said.
According to Swanson, when Yellowstone National Park was closed during last year’s government shutdown, “lots of people” who had been on their way to Yellowstone stayed at Makoshika.
But he said having no services at the campground “is our hang-up” in getting travellers to regularly stop for the night at Makoshika while on their way to Montana’s national parks.
Swanson said someone recently asked him what his biggest dream for the park was, and he told the board his reply was “to have water out there.”
“If you get somebody out here with a hot shower, clean drinking water and a (sewage) dumping station, we’d really have something here,” he said.
Swanson added that he believed Makoshika was vital to Glendive’s economy and admonished board members to not neglect the region.
“My wife and I have always referred to Makoshika as Glendive’s smoke-free industry,” he told the board. “Think about Glendive, not just about Billings west, but Billings east.”
Board member Jeff Welch of Livingston granted the Ranger-Review an interview during the brief break following the public comment period.
Welch said the very reason for the board’s creation by the legislature was to help the state parks set goals and priorities and lay out a plan for their development that legislators and the executive branch can get behind.
“Why do you create a new board when there hasn’t been one for state parks in 75 years? I think the reason is to create a vision that others can latch onto,” Welch said. “Everybody likes state parks, but what they have suffered from is a lack of focus and a lack of vision.”
He added that Jimison and Swanson’s remarks about expanding and improving Makoshika’s campground in order to improve tourism to the park were legitimate arguments.
“The needs I heard defined at this meeting make tons of sense to me,” Welch said.
There’s also no doubt, according to Welch, that some of Montana’s state parks deserve special attention from the state government.
“There are clearly parks like Makoshika that are real jewels in the system and have the ability to attract more people, but they need more infrastructure,” he said.
Pouring money into infrastructure projects like Makoshika’s campground is difficult, however, given Montana State Parks’ limited funding and the fact that it has a total of 53 parks to operate and maintain.
“That’s the nut we have to crack — how do we get more funding for places like Makoshika but deal with everything else we have,” Welch said.
He added that if it were strictly up to him, the needs of the “jewels in the system” like Makoshika would take top priority.
“Personally, I would be focusing more on the jewels,” Welch said.
As for going to the 2015 legislature and asking for more funding for Montana State Parks so more improvements can be made, Welch said the board is “just not there yet.” He added as appointees of Gov. Steve Bullock, the board couldn’t collectively lobby the legislature for more funding without his blessing.
Even with Bullock’s blessing, getting more funding from the legislature for state parks may be an iffy proposition.
Montana State Parks’ primary source of funding is the voluntary $6 fee car owners pay on their vehicle registration.
Rep. Alan Doane, who currently represents Dawson County in the Montana House and who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said he sees “little appetite” in the legislature to divert any money from the state’s general fund to state parks.
“There’s some things like (state parks) that no matter how hard you sell it, it’s not going to sell, and I don’t see the votes coming to send general fund money to the parks,” Doane said. “Everybody can see the parks need more revenue, but I don’t think it should be on the backs of the taxpayers who aren’t using them.”
Instead, Doane said he “thinks there’s an appetite to see the parks self-fund.”
He pointed to the bill he introduced last session which would have allowed Makoshika to auction off fossils discovered in the park and use the funds from such sales to improve the park as an example. The bill passed the legislature comfortably, but was vetoed by Bullock over concerns and objections raised by state parks administrators.
Doane said he believes there is “great interest” among legislators to see improvements made to the state parks, but said he’d like to see the funding for it come from sources like his fossil bill or private enterprises operated in the parks.
“I would like to see them open things up to vendors,” Doane said. “I think there’s a world of opportunity.”
Reach Jason Stuart at email@example.com.