State board OKs Big Arm easement deal

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The Montana State Parks and Recreation Board on June 20 unanimously approved a plan to go ahead with the purchase of a permanent recreation easement for the Big Arm unit of Flathead Lake State Park, a step toward ensuring the continued operation of a public recreation site at Big Arm.

The board’s approval was the first major step in the process of two state agencies — Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — moving toward an agreement that will protect Big Arm State Park in perpetuity.

Funding for the easement, expected to cost approximately $12 million, will come from a number of funding sources outlined in state legislation that was approved during the last legislative session and becomes effective July 1. House Bill 695 gives the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks funding authority to purchase a recreation easement for Big Arm State Park from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The legislation outlines funding from five different sources, the largest being $5.8 million from the state’s general license fund, and $1.5 million from state parks earned revenue. The rest of the easement money will come from three federal special revenue funds, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The easement cost is based on 100% of the property’s appraised value.

The 217-acre Big Arm park is located on DNRC school trust land. Money paid for the easement will go into a permanent fund managed by the Montana Board of Investments. Interest from the easement payment would be distributed to Montana schools.

“This is a great partnership between two agencies that proactively resolves the issue of saving a critical park on the shores of Flathead Lake ... and funding for schools is coming out of it,” said Pat Doyle, communications manager for the parks division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It’s really, really exciting on our part; it’s something that’s been looming for years.”

Michael Atwood, bureau chief for DNRC’s real estate management bureau, said both state agencies are committed to making the permanent easement of Big Arm State Park a reality..

“This is the best solution for both agencies,” Atwood said. “This is a permanent solution to protect that park.”

The proposed easement has to get a few more approvals before it’s a done deal. Fish, Wildlife and Parks must present the plan to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for its endorsement at an Aug. 15 meeting. DNRC is required to get approval from the state Land Board, Atwood said.

The state Parks Division has leased the Big Arm unit on Flathead Lake since 1966, but that lease is expiring March 1, 2020. Atwood noted there is a provision to extend the March 1 deadline if more time is needed to finalize the easement.

Had the Legislature not taken action to nail down funding sources for the permanent easement, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation could have reverted to a standard lease appraisal rate formula, a move that would have increased the current $18,000 annual lease to as much as $600,000 a year, an amount FWP said would be cost-prohibitive.

Big Arm has been among the top four most-used campgrounds in the state park system since a campsite reservation system began in 2012.

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

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