Next month the Montana Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council will be looking at a variety of proposals dealing with the management of the state resources in Virginia and Nevada Cities, raising concern amongst local citizens and business owners.
The EQC staff is busy crafting three bills that will be presented as proposals to the council, said Hope Stockwell, the legislative staff member assigned to researching and crafting the bills.
The bill drafts will be the next step in the process of deciding whether or not oversight of the state resources in Virginia and Nevada Cities will change, coming under a re-invented state parks program.
“We’re trying to see what the state can do with the substantial investment they have in Virginia and Nevada City,” said Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, chairman of the EQC, which is an interim legislative committee.
And though residents and business owners in Virginia and Nevada Cities are concerned about what the EQC will propose, the main goal of looking at the situation is to try and decide whether or not to change the way state parks are managed.
The EQC is responding to House Joint Resolution 32, which directed them to look at how the state parks division is managed and if it should be moved from under the auspices of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and under either the Montana Department of Commerce or the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said Rep. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton.
Connell sponsored HJ 32, which he says is essentially calling for a study of whether or not there is a better way to manage state parks and find some efficiency with combining the heritage commission with state parks management.
“I just wanted clarity to the situation that I was hearing bits and pieces and comments on every side that either it was good or not good,” Connell said. “The interim is the place to have reviewed this with less time pressure and more available time for staff to review it and give us the details and the data.”
Part of the idea was to give state parks their own governing commission or board, rather than have them under the control of the FWP Commission, which typically has its plate full with fish and game issues, he said.
It seemed logical to Connell to at least look at the possibility of combining the Montana Heritage Commission with a new board overseeing parks, recreation and heritage programs and properties around the state.
The MHC manages property in Reeder’s Alley in Helena along with the major holdings in Virginia and Nevada Cities. The MHC was formed in 1997 by the state Legislature when it passed legislation to purchase the properties owned by the estate of Charles Bovey.
Bovey had collected historic properties in Virginia and Nevada Cities and state ownership was determined to be the best solution to maintain and promote them.
The legislation put the MHC in the Montana Department of Commerce.
At the EQC meeting in January, Chas Van Genderen, director of the FWP state parks program, presented a white paper as the agency’s response to the EQC inquiry.
Van Genderen’s report called for the state holdings in Virginia and Nevada Cities and Reeder’s Alley to be designated as state parks and be integrated into the state parks system.
The report also called for the establishment of a Montana Parks, Recreation and Heritage Commission that would oversee the management of all the state parks.
Van Genderen wouldn’t answer questions for this article. Jennifer Lawson, spokeswoman for the parks division at FWP in Helena said he had made his comments public through the EQC testimony and the report.
“We have answered questions and submitted information to this committee and now it’s in their court,” Lawson said.
Van Genderen’s white paper raised concerns with people and business owners in Virginia City, as well as with officials at the Montana Heritage Commission.
“I feel pretty confident in saying that Virginia City is not a state park,” said Rebecca Ramsey, executive director of the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce. “We are a thriving, living, commerce driven community despite the fact we have this incredibly unique cultural heritage piece.”
Virginia City is not only home to more than 150 residents, it is the Madison County seat and home to county office buildings and the courthouse. These facts make it dramatically different than any other state park in Montana, Ramsey said.
In an effort to move forward with their study, the three bills being drafted for the EQC is will serve as potential proposals, Stockwell said.
One bill would simply give state parks their own commission, similar to the FWP Commission that currently has ultimate authority on many fish and wildlife issues. This bill won’t include any changes for Virginia and Nevada Cities.
Another bill would create a parks commission and put the administration of Virginia and Nevada Cities under the auspices of that new commission, eliminating the existing Montana Heritage Commission.
The third bill would create a Montana Parks, Recreation and Heritage Board, which would ultimately have management authority for the state resources in Virginia and Nevada Cities. Under this bill, the existing heritage commission would continue and serve as advisors for the parks, recreation and heritage board.
“In May (the EQC members) will review the bill drafts and decide whether or not they want to proceed with any of them because they could proceed with any or all three,” Stockwell said.
Proceeding will mean collecting public comment on the bill drafts, editing them as necessary and then ultimately making a decision as to whether or not to bring the bills to the full Legislature in 2013.
In Virginia City, MHC officials and some local residents hope for the status quo.
The MHC has undergone some dramatic changes in the past year. It restructured organizationally, eliminated five full time positions and hired their first business manager.
The changes were tough, but finally the MHC is ready to move forward again, said Marilyn Ross, acting executive director of the heritage commission and chair of the 14-person heritage commission board.
The best place for the MHC is to stay under the Montana Department of Commerce, she said.
“We want to stay in (the Department of) Commerce,” Ross said. “We do not want to be moved over into parks because we feel that the management that’s needed in Virginia City and Nevada City and also Reeder’s Alley is much different than the management of many of our state parks.”
State management of resources in Virginia and Nevada Cities has often led to conflict between the MHC and local residents. However, the changes the MHC has made in the past year have been positive and their new business manager, Elijah Allen, is a great addition.
“The residents feel very hopeful and encouraged and we don’t want to change now,” said Toni James, owner of Rank’s Mercantile in Virginia City. “I think we’re finally going in the right direction and I really think the residents have been so disappointed or discouraged and now everybody is hopeful.”
Ramsey agreed. The bumps in the road previously with the MHC have given way to a new optimism with locals.
“They now have the right people in place,” she said referring to Allen. “I think he has a great long-term vision of how to make it not only sustainable but thriving.”
Still, the persistent question that comes around every legislative session is about funding, said Keane. As funding continues to be an issue, the EQC wants to look at ways the state properties in Virginia and Nevada Cities could be helped.
Keane isn’t interested in forcing a change in how the state resources in the two towns are managed if local residents don’t want change. However, he wants to make sure people look at the long-term impacts of the MHC continuing as essentially a stand-alone agency that continues to see its funding cut.
“Nobody is looking at the long run and long future here,” Keane said. “If we continue to cut the budget, what do they think we’re going to have left down there?”
He has visited Virginia and Nevada Cities several times and knows the need for restoration work on many of the state owned buildings. It could be that looking at changes in management could benefit how the restoration and management of those historic properties is funded.
But right now all the EQC is doing is investigating the issue. It isn’t ready to make any recommendations or propose any legislation to change anything, Keane said.
To that end, the EQC will visit Virginia and Nevada Cities on May 2 to see first hand the state holdings in the two communities.
“We sit in Helena all the time and make these decisions that effect people and we don’t even know what we’re looking at,” he said. “We have to take a trip down there and at least have these people who are sitting there and making decisions at least look at Virginia City and Nevada City.”