Caring for Montana's state parks

Chris Bodeker works to preserve Flathead Lake state parks

By David Reese
Chris Bodeker looked out from the shoreline at Big Arm State Park last week and saw not only a wide, quiet bay on Flathead Lake; he saw potential.

Bodeker, who is the parks ranger at the seven state parks on Flathead Lake, maintains and oversees the properties that give people access to Flathead Lake, from a tiny undeveloped park on the north shore, to the 2,300-acre Wild Horse Island State Park. Last year about 200,000 people visited state parks on Flathead Lake. The majority of those people — 125,000 —visited Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork, the fifth-busiest state park in Montana.

Farther south on Flathead Lake, Finley Point State Park is in dire need of renovation and improvements, Bodeker said, and legislation this year should address that. “Finley Point was never designed as a high-use park and boat access,” Bodeker said.
The park, he said, sees extremely high usage in the summer, and it needs to be redesigned to accommodate the increased use.
A new project is underway this summer at Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork, where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will begin building a new ranger station and administration facilities. Construction should begin this summer on that project. Usage continues to grow Wayfarers. “We refer to Wayfarers as the Yosemite of Flathead Lake,” Bodeker said. “It really packs them in.”
State parks on Flathead Lake see continued increase in use, with rarely a corresponding increase in budget, Bodeker said. The parks managers rely heavily on volunteers, mainly retirees. “They come up here year after year and give up their summers,” Bodeker said. “The budget we operate on here pales in comparison to other state parks.”

There has been a renewed effort in many communities on Flathead Lake to conserve public access to the lake. In Elmo, that didn’t happen. About 15 years ago the state did not renew its lease from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, where the park sits, and the park closed. Bodeker said a similar situation could face Big Arm State Park.

The Montana DNRC leases the Big Arm site to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the biennial lease agreement expired in 2014, Bodeker said. The parks department has extended its lease agreement to 2016. “We need to find a plan for a perpetual lease,” Bodeker said.
The former Elmo state park is on state land, so the land is still available for use, but there are no public facilities other than a boat ramp and latrine at what is called “Elmo Eco Park.”
Last week, only one camper was at the Big Arm State Park. In about two months, the park will be packed. With most of its 45 campsites and three yurts situated on the waterfront of Flathead Lake, the 200-acre Big Arm State Park is a unique park on Flathead Lake. There is another 40 acres of state land on the north side of the highway across from Big Arm State Park. “This place has so much potential,” Bodeker said. Big Arm receives about 34,000 visits a year.
Most of the facilities around Flathead Lake are due for upgrades and repairs. Bodeker said he balances his time among the seven state parks and manages his time based on what is best for the public.
“I think you’ll start to see a lot more improvements around the lake,” he said. “There’s a lot more that can be done.”
One idea Bodeker has for state parks on Flathead Lake is to expand the yurt-rental program at Big Arm. Bodeker said this fall the yurts will be available to rent in the spring and fall. He also sees expanded services to the bicycle tourist market.
“That’s an untapped market,” he said.
There are 10 campsites dedicated in Bigfork for walk-in and bicycle campers, and the park took in $3,700 in revenue from those campers last year, according to Bodeker. “They’re a small footprint, and you don’t have to provide huge facilities for people with a bicycle and a tent.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also has to balance the public’s desire. In Bigfork, when the state wanted to build a new 800-square-foot administration building at Harry Horn Day Use area, at the entrance to Wayfarers Park, public outcry resulted. As a result, the plans for the improvements were a collaborative effort between the Bigfork community and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “We try to listen to what people want,” he said, “some people don’t want improvements, but we have to maintain these public lands for future generations.”
At the north end of Flathead Lake and at the opposite end of the spectrum on state parks, the tiny North Shore State Park is practically unknown. A road accesses a small turnaround, and an undeveloped trail leads through the marshes to the shore of the lake. There is no signage and you would not know the park is there. But it is a state park.
Wild Horse Island State Park this year will receive a new boat dock, which will help people load and unload at this popular state park. The dock is for loading and unloading only, and boaters will still have to moor or anchor their boats along the shore.

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