State parks, trails and fishing access sites across Montana will soon be seeing an upgrade, thanks to a new bill signed by Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this month.
The bill, Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier (R-Helena) raised the optional light motor vehicle registration fee for parks and recreation from $6 to $9, raising an additional $2 million annually for recreation spending across the state.
“The sky is the limit,” said Beth Shumate, state parks administrator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “This is broad-based recreation funding for the first time ever. This benefits your community whether you have a park or not – it’s trails, fishing accesses.”
About $170,000 will go to state fishing access sites, about $940,000 will go to a new grant program for trails and $892,000 will go to the state park system.
Currently, public lands in Montana are drastically underfunded, with a $22 million backlog of maintenance at state parks and more than $1 million of trail upgrade requests to the state going unfunded annually. Almost one-third of the projects that apply for grants were not funded, according to the Montana Trails in Crisis report by the Montana Trails Coalition, a diverse group of users that supports trails funding across the state.
This lack of funding is happening at the same time that visitation to public lands is skyrocketing. Over the past five years, outdoor recreation spending in Montana increased 22 percent from $5.8 billion to $7.1 billion, which supports more than 70,000 jobs.
The bill passed with bipartisan support in both the Montana House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Bullock in front of a diverse group of Montanans, including motorized and non-motorized users, conservation, hunting and fishing groups, business associations and civic organizations.
“It’s highly unusual for Trout Unlimited, the Montana Association of Counties, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Board of Realtors to support one bill,” said Angie Grove, the chairwoman of the State Parks and Recreation Board.
But that’s what SB24 did, and Gauthier said that wide support helped get the bill passed.
“We had very strong support from all of the park people themselves, regular citizens, all different recreation groups, all different trail people, the OHV (off-highway vehicle) community, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers,” Gauthier said. “It wasn’t just one specific group of people. If we didn’t have a little OHV, snowmobilers, it probably wouldn’t have gotten the extra votes it needed to pass.”
SB 24 had a number of hiccups throughout the process – it was introduced in the first week and not passed until the 83rd day of the session, Gauthier pointed out – but the strength of the bill and its supporters’ persistence carried it to the finish line.
Bob Walker, chairman of the Montana Trails Coalition, a group of organizations working to help fund trails, said this bill was a great win, and the coalition hopes to build on the victory to fund access to public lands in the future.
Gauthier said the fact that the bill wasn’t a new funding source, but rather building on an optional tax, made many people support it. But 77 percent of Montanans don’t opt out because of their desire to support public lands.
“It wasn’t a big ask. The way I presented it in committee is can we give up one beer, one microbrew to fund this?” Gauthier said. “For a microbrew, it’s usually more than $3.”
Gauthier said the bill was supported by the Solutions Caucus, of which he is a member. That caucus helps moderate Republicans work with Democrats to make Montana a better place. He said that group was only able to have success pushing the bill because of the widespread support from organizations across Montana.
“There are always going to be a group of people looking to the future of what the needs of the parks will be, and all of those things are possible, but do you get it worked out? What’s that funding mechanism? That’s what’s important,” he said.
And this helped everyone get a piece of the pie.
Still, Gauthier said it’s just a “patch” on the hole for funding for public lands.
Noah Marion, policy and advocacy manager for the Montana Wilderness Association, said this bill raised the profile for public lands funding, and they can likely use that clout to have more success in the future.
“It’s a great win, but it’s just a step in the right direction,” Marion said.