Fate of Big Arm state park in question

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In an effort to avoid an annual lease payment as high as $600,000 for the Big Arm unit of Flathead Lake State Park, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is recommending the agency purchase a permanent recreation easement that could cost as much as $12 million.

The state Parks Division has leased the Big Arm unit on Flathead Lake since 1966, but that lease is expiring March 1, 2020. At that point the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will revert to a standard lease appraisal rate formula — a move that would increase the lease from $18,000 to as much as $600,000 a year, according to the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board.

The board meets from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, June 20, in Helena and is expected to take action on the Big Arm permanent easement acquisition proposal. The meeting will be held at Montana Wild, located at 2668 Broadwater, and is open to the public.

Two alternatives for the Big Arm unit have been outlined by the state Parks Division.

The first option, favored by Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would evaluate purchase options for a permanent easement of the Big Arm unit. Under this alternative, Fish, Wildlife and Parks would purchase a permanent recreation easement, eliminating an annual lease payment. A permanent easement cost is 100% of appraised value and would provide authority for FWP to operate a recreation site at Big Arm in perpetuity. The two state agencies — Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — would appraise the existing park footprint, as well as additional DNRC-owned property contiguous to the park.

“Based on appraisal values, FWP would purchase an easement on as much of this acreage as the authorized funding level allows,” according to the state Parks and Rec Board agenda report.

A second alternative would allow FWP to evaluate the ability to continue paying an annual lease for Big Arm after the current lease expires. However, “given the anticipated increase in the cost, it is likely that the department would not be able to afford continued operation, thus forcing closure,” the report noted. All capital improvements to the Big Arm unit would become the property of DNRC.

In its agency rationale for purchasing a permanent easement, FWP said the continued operation of a public recreation site at Big Arm is critical.

“This state park unit is a major component of one of Montana’s flagship state parks, located on one of the most significant waterbodies in the country,” the agency stated, noting Big Arm has been among the top four most-used campgrounds in the state park system since a campsite reservation system began in 2012.

“The park is arguable the most significant access point for boating and angling access on Flathead Lake and is the primary departure point for the Wild Horse Island unit of Flathead Lake State Park,” FWP further stated.

The permanent easement proposal also will be presented to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for its endorsement at the Aug. 15 meeting.

Located about 38 miles south of Kalispell off U.S. 93 on Flathead Lake’s Big Arm Bay, the 217-acre Big Arm park is popular with sunbathers and swimmers. Camping under a stand of mature ponderosa pine and juniper is a major attraction, according to a state parks website. A 2.5 mile trail is another popular amenity.

To view the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board Agenda visit: http://stateparks.mt.gov/about-us/parksBoard.html

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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