Flathead Lake: Continued public access to Big Arm State Park could cost $12M

The 2019 Legislature passed a bill that appropriated $12 million for FWP to buy a permanent recreation easement from the DNRC. (visitMT.com)

A state park on Flathead Lake will cost millions to buy, but that’s better than having to pay millions in rent.

On Thursday, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission gave FWP Lands Program Manager Darlene Edge the go-ahead to assess the purchase of a recreation easement from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that would allow Big Arm State Park to stay open to the public.

“The can has been kicked down the road for quite a while now,” Edge told the commission. “(The proposal) did say the two agencies would conduct a (public) process in September. Well, that’s come and gone. So it will more likely be in November.”

FWP has leased the 271-acre property on the west side of Flathead Lake from the DNRC since 1966. During that time, Big Arm State Park, one of six units that comprise Flathead Lake State Park, has grown in popularity. It’s now one of the most visited among Montana’s 55 state parks and is regularly among the top three in number of reservations made for its 41 campsites.

It provides a jumping-off point for those boating over to Wild Horse Island and is a key launch site for emergency responders dealing with boating emergencies.

The problem is that Flathead Lake has also grown in popularity, and land prices have skyrocketed.

Montana law requires that state agencies charge an annual lease rate equal to 5% of the land value. In Montana in the late 20th century, FWP didn’t have a problem. Even now, FWP pays just $18,000 a year.

However, the most recent property assessment in 2014 estimated that the value of Big Arm State Park is between $10 million and $12 million. That means FWP would have to pay about $600,000 a year for the lease. And, with Montana land prices continuing to rise, that would likely increase after the next property appraisal.

FWP Director Martha Williams told the 2019 Legislature that the state park budget couldn’t absorb that kind of payment and still be able to keep many other parks open.

Fortunately, the Legislature passed a bill that appropriated $12 million for FWP to buy a permanent recreation easement from the DNRC. Under that bill, almost half of the money would come out of sportsmen’s license fees. Almost $5 million would come from federal money, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund and taxes on boat fuel and fishing gear established in the Dingle-Johnson Act, and $1.5 million would be taken out of car license registration fees intended for state parks.

Williams told the Legislature the license fund is in good shape, and using the money wouldn’t result in license fee increases. However, if FWP can get money from other sources, less will be taken out of the license fund.

So that’s what Edge and her staff will be looking into. But they don’t have much time, because the DRNC lease expires in March.

The state will appraise the property, and FWP will buy as much as $12 million can get.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.