A spat between the dismissed board chairman for Montana State Parks and the governor has been resolved, possibly to the benefit of Hell Creek State Park.
In August, Gov. Steve Bullock dismissed two of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board’s inaugural members, Mary Sexton and board chairman Tom Towe. Sexton quietly stepped down, but Towe raised a ruckus, saying the governor was legally not allowed to remove the board members. All three are Democrats. Towe is a practicing Billings attorney.
The dismissals could have been fallout in the wake of last year’s Legislature, during which the two board members supported a bill that would have allowed the parks board to hire its own executive director. The measure passed the House and Senate by healthy margins. In a letter to the governor, Towe implored Bullock to sign the legislation, writing that, “Parks cannot grow and be the agency it needs to be if it is left under the thumb of Fish and Wildlife.” The letter was acquired by the Helena Independent Record through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Towe went on to write that “fish and wildlife people” don’t want state parks to receive any federal money, calling the differences between the two divisions “irreconcilable.”
“I genuinely fear that if this bill is vetoed, there will be a mass resignation in the Parks Division because the morale is so low right now,” Towe wrote, partly because the parks division’s administrator, Chas Van Genderen, had been sacked at the end of 2015. Van Genderen was later awarded $137,500 in a settlement with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The terms of Van Genderen’s firing were not revealed and the department initially would not release its settlement with him, saying it was a personnel matter. After a public records request and threat of legal action by the Independent Record, Van Genderen agreed to waive his right to privacy, and FWP released the settlement details.
In a March letter to Bullock’s then-chief of staff, Tracy Stone Manning, Towe laid the blame for Van Genderen’s dismissal and the parks division’s budget ills at the feet of the Bullock administration, writing, “You were forewarned.”
Bullock ended up vetoing the parks bill, calling the move a “step backward” and adding that it would only exacerbate Montana State Parks’ funding dilemma. He noted that although Montana’s 55 parks have seen a 42 percent increase in visitation since 2011, infrastructure needs have been estimated at $22 million.
In December, in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture, Bullock announced that he was nominating Towe for consideration to serve on the National Park System Advisory Board.
“Tom is a passionate and dedicated advocate for our park systems in Montana,” Bullock said in the statement. “Tom will work tirelessly to protect these national treasures and ensure they remain an important resource for generations to come.”
The National Park System Advisory Board “advises the Director of the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior on matters relating to the National Park Service, the National Park System, and programs administered by the National Park Service,” according to the governor’s statement.
With Ryan Zinke, a Montanan, in charge of the Department of the Interior, Towe may have good odds of being appointed to the national board.
“I’d be happy to accept that post, and I appreciate the governor’s confidence in nominating me,” Towe said.
The nomination was just part of a deal that Towe and Bullock negotiated to settle what Towe sees as his improper dismissal from the parks board. Bullock has also named Towe a “special liaison” to the new director of Fish Wildlife & Parks, Martha Williams, to lead the discussion of funding for Hell Creek State Park. Towe will also be presenting his ideas for funding for state parks to the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board and to members of the governor's Parks In Focus Initiative, a program which has not yet taken flight.
Details of those appointments were made available in January upon request by the Billings Gazette and were not detailed in the governor’s other press release about nominating Towe for the national board.
“The governor and I both are working together in the best interest of parks,” Towe said. “I spent a lot of time with the governor, Martha and staff” to seek a resolution.
Despite such conciliatory language, Towe still carries a bit of a grudge.
“I’m not really thrilled, but that’s probably better than filing a lawsuit and having the hassle for two years,” he said.
Going to Hell
Handing Towe the task of leading the discussion of funding for Hell Creek State Park has the feel of tossing a drowning man an anchor. That’s because the park board, under Towe’s leadership, agreed to walk away from the site in 2021 unless a new way of funding the park’s $1 million list of infrastructure needs and annual operating deficit — which in 2015 was $87,000 — can be found. Despite running a deficit, visitation to the park has risen, totaling more than 26,000 in 2016.
To create Hell Creek State Park, the state leases 337 acres along the southern shore of Fort Peck Reservoir, 26 miles north of Jordan, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The park includes a campground with electrical hookups, fish-cleaning station, comfort station, picnic shelter and boat ramp. Since 1990 the state has invested more than $2.68 million in park infrastructure.
The site also contains a marina with gas pumps, docks and a motel, which have been operated by concessioners Clint and Deb Thomas since 2002. The Thomases could not be reached for comment.
The Thomases’ lease expires at the end of this year. They have in the past indicated an interest in renewing the lease, but wanted the length of the lease increased to 20 years, which guarantees more financial stability and the ability to request bank loans for improvements. The Legislature has approved 20-year concession leases, but now that seems like a worthless gesture if the state leaves the site.
“There’s support among some (parks) staff to turn it over to the Army Corps of Engineers,” Towe said. “I don’t like that.”
Montana State Parks has offered to renew the Thomases lease only through 2021, since it’s not certain the park will even be operated by Montana after its own lease from the Corps expires in 2021. The state agency has yet to hear back from the Thomases, which have until June to decide about the shorter lease. By 2019, the state is supposed to make its intentions known about whether it is leaving Hell Creek or not. Corps officials have said they have no money to take over operation of the park, as has surrounding Garfield County.
Towe criticized the Army Corps oversight of the Rock Creek Marina concession at the east end of the lake, saying he doesn’t like how crowded the site has become. That’s one more reason why Towe would rather see Hell Creek stay under state management. He’d also prefer to see the concession contract opened up to all bidders to find out if anyone else, or the Thomases, would offer to build a new marina.
“We need a nicer facility for people who want to get their fishing tackle,” Towe said, as opposed to the trailer house that currently exists.
“I think it’s solvable and could be done nicely,” he added. “So the state could continue to manage that and have a really nice park.”
Given Towe’s feisty nature, the fact that he served as a Montana legislator, and his support of state parks, he could be the best person to find a way to keep Hell Creek in state hands, bringing the varied parties to the table. But his bravado is watered down by the weak nature of his gubernatorial appointment — special liaison to the director of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, directly “under the thumb” of an agency where he said Montana State Parks is unable to grow.