‘Strong…Montanans?’ ‘Pesky Minnesotans?’ Committee takes up cap on campsite reservations

By: - February 14, 2023 8:04 pm

A camper at Finley Point paddles Flathead Lake at sunset. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Remember being able to throw your tent in the back of your truck at the last minute on a Friday and pulling into a lovely campsite in Montana for the weekend?

Dave Galt remembers, and Tuesday, he said lawmakers should pass Libby Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson’s bill to limit reservations at state campgrounds to 80% of capacity.

To try to plan ahead, Galt said he and his wife have pulled out the calendar to try to reserve a campsite in the summer somewhere between Seeley Lake and Swan Lake.

“And there’s not a reservable camp spot between those two places from May to August,” said Galt, representing himself. “So I think things have changed, and I think this is a good idea.”

If anyone thought otherwise, Chairman Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Power, had an idea he presented when he called for opponents to House Bill 440.

“If there is, we’ll have the sergeant of arms dispatch them,” Fitzgerald joked.

No one took the challenge, and the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee didn’t take immediate action Tuesday.

In his opening, Gunderson said one of the problems is Glacier National Park has become popular.

It’s so packed with out-of-state visitors, the park is limiting traffic on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, and those tourists are spilling onto state lands and taking up reservations at state parks.

He said it’s nearly impossible for locals to get spots.

The bill doesn’t specify that Fish, Wildlife and Parks would manage the remaining 20% capacity, and Gunderson said the idea is to open availability at state campsites to Montana residents. For example, he’d like residents to have walk-up options.

As written, the bill applies to state parks or fishing access sites that allow overnight camping and fall under the jurisdiction of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Representatives from Wild Montana, Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wildlife Federation testified in favor of the bill. (Gunderson made note of them: “It does make me nervous to have all of these proponents come in behind me because they don’t normally sit there.”)

With Trout Unlimited, Colin Cooney said the problem was so bad, he couldn’t even get a reservation at Cooney State Park.

“You’d think I’d be a shoo-in for that,” he joked.

Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, said he appreciated the intent of the bill and was inclined to support it. But he had a question about out-of-state visitors versus resident campers.

“Do we have data on … whether campsites are being filled with those pesky Minnesotans versus those strong, upstanding Montanans?” France said.

Hope Stockwell, with Fish, Wildlife and Parks said yes — “without using those colorful terms” — and she would provide it.

But Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, wanted to know if the reservation system distinguished between residents and nonresidents when they booked a campsite — since the bill doesn’t say only residents would be allowed to reserve the last 20%.

Stockwell agreed campers all use the same reservation system.

(Gunderson said he believed the intent of the main author, Speaker of the House Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, was to leave those sites open for locals.)

Gunderson said some campgrounds already set aside walk-up sites, but locals are turned away at 13 parks where nonresidents fill up reservations.

Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, wanted to know if walk-up sites are getting maxed out. Stockwell said occupancy rates vary, and she would provide details.

Smith said it would be good to know if the right split was 80-20, for example, or, say, 75-25.

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, asked a number of questions, including about the number of staffed versus unstaffed campgrounds.

Said France: “I think that Rep. Loge is auditioning to become a camp host. I think he’d represent Montana well.”

At that, Loge tooted his own horn: “I might put in, Mr. Chair, that I’m not a pesky Minnesotan.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.