Montana

Jan 17, 2011 6:17 AM by Associated Press

State land purchases lead to maintenance backlog

HELENA - The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the last six years has acquired 232,000 acres for state parks, wildlife management areas and fishing access sites.

But Parks Division administrator Chas Van Genderen said his division is in a "terrible fiscal situation" trying to pay for maintaining new land and other properties the state already owned.

The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission last month refused Van Genderen's request to raise fees at some state parks, citing the economic downturn.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said that many of the land purchases and land donations to the state have improved access to rivers or larger pieces of public land for recreation.

"I suppose this administration will best be remembered for finding new opportunities for families to hunt, camp and fish," Schweitzer told the Independent Record. "I'm proud that we have found the resources to fund land purchases that help Montana families."

Land purchases during the Schweitzer administration are nearly four times larger than was bought or given to Fish, Wildlife and Parks during the previous 12 years.

"I think it's important to note that we have a mix of the kinds of purchases we made," Schweitzer said. "In many cases, like when we purchase fishing access sites, they're not large pieces of land but are critical pieces of land so more people can access our rivers.

And in some cases, they are small- and medium-size purchases that create conduits to much larger pieces of public land for public recreation."

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier acknowledged there is a maintenance backlog but that the land acquisitions were good opportunities.

"Our philosophy in going into this whole thing was that where we had good opportunities that weren't just throwing money away, for places where we really needed access - special places - that we would act now and at the very worst case we might have to mothball them awhile to do necessary things to open them to the public," Maurier said.

The Legislative Fiscal Division said a variety of accounting practices make it hard to determine how much has been spent on maintenance.

Most of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' budget comes from license and recreational fees, federal funds, and the state bed tax.

Maurier has asked lawmakers for permission to raise the voluntary fee people can pay when they license their vehicles from $4 to $6.

"We'll do the best we can and eventually everything will be open," Maurier said. "Our parks system is not funded very well, so we are going to see if people are willing to pay a little more."

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