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Bullock signs law creating new board for parks

Matthew Brown, Associated Press

Gov. Steve Bullock, center, signs into a bill creating a citzens' commission to oversee Montana's 54 state parks as Rep. Duane Ankney, left, and Sen. Jim Keane look on during a ceremony at Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, Mont., Monday, April 29, 2013. Montana's state parks will be overseen by a board dedicated to parks and recreation matters under a new law that splits up the duties of the former Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana's state parks will be overseen by a board dedicated to parks and recreation issues under a law signed Monday that will divide the duties of the former Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.

During a signing ceremony at Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, which boasts Native American rock art dating to the time when Cleopatra ruled Egypt, Gov. Steve Bullock said the five-member commission will improve efforts to care for natural and historic areas that he described as crucial to preserving Montana's outdoor heritage.

"In Montana we're blessed because we can camp where our grandparents did. By giving our state parks the attention and resources (they) warrant, there's every chance our grandkids will be able to camp there, too," he said.

Montana has 54 state parks. Two million people visit them every year, generating roughly $300 million annually for local economies, state officials said.

Oversight of those parks for more than four decades has fallen under the purview of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. But supporters of change, including the bill's Republican sponsor, Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, said that in the past, the parks got short shrift as wildlife issues dominated the commission's agenda.

"After you get done talking about buffalo and wolves and everything else, there isn't any time for parks and it gets put off until the next meeting," he said.

Montana state parks administrator Chas Van Genderen said Montana's park system was formed in 1939. In 1953, oversight was moved to the Highways Department, and in 1965, to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The new commission will begin work on July 1, with members to be appointed by the governor.

George Golie with the Montana Wildlife Federation said an earlier version of the bill would have extended the new board's jurisdiction beyond park boundaries, a prospect that generated opposition when Ankney's bill was first introduced.

The dispute was resolved in the Legislature, and Golie said the bill that emerged should be beneficial to the parks system as commission members are able to devote themselves to their task without getting distracted by unrelated issues.

The state parks division will remain within the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But the new parks commission will be independent of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees Montana's wildlife and set hunting and fishing regulations.

Revenues from fishing and hunting licenses that cover much of the department's budget are not used for parks, said state Sen. Jim Keane of Butte, who helped push for the creation of a separate commission. Most of the parks money comes from an optional $6 vehicle licensing fee, he said.