Garfield County eyes taking over Hell Creek lease

The room was full last Thursday for the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board meeting, which explored future management of Hell Creek State Park once the state relinquishes its role.

Four people spoke during the public comment section in support of Hell Creek. The first speaker was State Rep. Ken Holmlund (R-HD-38).

“I’ve had the opportunity to tour Hell Creek and get to know some of the people. I would like the board to understand how important Hell Creek is to the people of Eastern Montana,” said Holmlund. “It’s very important to the economy of Jordan.”

“The main comments I’m getting from people is that the people in that general area would love to see this converted back to Garfield County. We would like to have this considered down the road,” said Holmlund. 

Garfield County Commissioner Jerry Coldwell spoke on behalf of the county wanting to take over the lease. 

“We are working on working out a program with the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers to take over the lease,” said Coldwell. “The county is in it.”

The board voiced concerns that the county attempting to take over the lease could be a financial burden, and it would most likely not receive much help from the local government. Aside from that, the board was supportive of their efforts. 

“We are very hopeful we can do it,” said Coldwell. “We’ve been watching it for years.”

The other two Garfield County Commissioners hadn’t weighed in on the possibility, as they received the proposal last Monday. 

Another issue is the condition of the road leading up to Hell Creek. According to Coldwell, the county is responsible for it, but it is only one road of many they must keep up with. 

“We’re trying to work out another system to get this road better,” said Coldwell. “We’re trying to find a way to finance getting a grader.”

The idea of partnering with the Montana Department of Transportation was recommended. 

The 20-mile stretch of road has greatly improved over the years.

According to Robert Stokes, whose family has owned a cabin out at Hell Creek since the ’70s, the road is ‘a million times better.’

The Garfield County proposal was originally raised by Jim Gustafson, a Helena resident and avid Hell Creek user. 

“The county cannot afford to run the park. I'm aware of two different groups that would be willing to sign a concession agreement with the county and would run the day to day operations of the camp ground," said Gustafson. “The proposal to the county is a two-part solution.”

According to Gustafson, the 55 acres of the marina could be issued back to the Corps, and then the county would take on the responsibility of managing that portion. The second part is for the county to take over management of the entire state park. 

Advocates for the park have contacted local legislators and state federal lawmakers seeking support for a solution. 

According to Gustafson, the Corps isn’t opposed to the idea.

“We think that’s a really ambitious project and encourage you to pursue that,” said Tom Towe, chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board. “The public is clamoring for an opportunity to use that area.”

According to Montana State Parks administrator Chas Van Genderen, if Garfield County is serious about taking over the park, his staff would be available for questions on managing the property. 

Towe brought attention to the possibility of raising the camping fees from less than $30 to $50  a night to cover expenses. The majority of the people in the room agreed that $50 would be too much and would deter campers. 

Recently the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board decided to relinquish management of the state park when the lease agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expires in 2021. 

The park has a list of $4 million in possible improvements.

According to Towe, the board is proposing the idea but will re-evaluate their decision at a later time.

“We would very much like to keep it, but at the present time we don’t have the money,” said Towe. 

Under the new ranking system, Hell Creek did not rank high enough in the state park classification system. The park is similar in access, relevance and significance to other parks in the state. 

Hell Creek is ranked as a class 3, with 1A being the highest rating and 4 as the lowest.