Don’t Commodify and Commercialize Montana’s Parks

While most of the public’s attention is focused on the upcoming election, there’s another important deadline to comment on the future of Montana’s state parks coming up Nov. 7. And once again, Montana’s wonderful natural, cultural and historic resources are being eyed as targets for development and commercialization as “open for business” commodities rather than publicly owned resources. There are many good reasons not to do so.

This latest move to visualize a different future for Montana’s state parks follows what can only be called a fiscal fiasco from the last legislative session in which it was discovered that somehow Montana State Parks had failed to account for some $11 million sitting in its accounts while telling legislators how broke the agency was. To say the Legislature was not pleased by the revelation of the hidden millions would be putting it mildly.

Given that Gov. Steve Bullock is in charge of the entire executive branch of state government, such fiscal unaccountability was enormously embarrassing. Thus, like so many politicians before him, when faced with a serious situation for which he apparently didn’t have any solutions, he appointed a study commission. Always handy for dodging personal responsibility, the results of similar study commissions have produced reams of what are commonly referred to as “shelf art” because most of them wind up gathering dust on shelves.

Not surprisingly, this latest effort falls back on the old and worn-out excuses that management of our state parks requires millions more in funding and sizable personnel increases in state bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, in their endless quest to find and spend more money — and allow the parks to be used to benefit corporate “partners” — the commission has ignored examples of what happened in other states when their parks were over-developed and commodified. In short, Washington and California both faced similar crises when they over-developed their parks and were then forced to sell some off because the projected revenue didn’t meet the ever-increasing expenditures necessary to actually maintain those parks.

If you think that wouldn’t happen in Montana, think again. It’s already been suggested by agency officials that the state divest some less-used, and hence less revenue-producing, parks. And that’s exactly what happens when the costs for commodifying and maintaining park development outpaces the revenue projections. Without spending controls, an ever-rising spiral of user fees eventually decreases public willingness to pay.

Moreover, in their rush to become revenue-producing entities, government agencies often forget that they are primarily funded by taxes on businesses and individuals. So, when state parks are developed to offer high-end commodities, they are directly competing with the private, tax-producing campgrounds that fuel state government. Simply put, it is folly for government to compete with its own source of sustenance — which is why the legislature passed a law mandating that maintenance take priority over development at all state parks and fishing access site.

And of course one might wonder why state parks would want to imitate our national parks, which are now suffering mightily from over-advertising, overuse and an inability to manage the ever-increasing burdens associated with that use — including ultimately, degradation of the parks. This is not theoretical, as many Montanans now avoid Glacier and Yellowstone national parks during tourist season because they are anything but appealing due to the crowds, traffic and hassles.

Finally, most Montanans live here because they like being surrounded by natural beauty. If you want to preserve that, tell the commission to keep our state parks natural and affordable for Montanans instead of commodifying and commercializing them to raise agency revenue.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.