Celebrating 75 Years
Montana State Parks has provided recreational opportunities, and preserved and protected our state’s heritage and the natural beauty of our public lands for the benefit of our families, communities, and local economies for over 75 years.
The History of Montana State Parks
The idea of a state park system started as early as the 1920s, influenced by the new conservation movement, spearheaded by President Teddy Roosevelt. Cities were growing and more people owned automobiles, increasing demand for places to get outdoors.
The state park concept stayed alive through the 20s, but it wasn’t until the Depression and the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which put scores of people back to work in nation’s forests and parks, that the state park movement was revitalized. The CCC built facilities at Lewis & Clark Caverns, which became Montana’s first state park in 1936.
Montana State Parks started in 1939 when the legislature passed the first comprehensive state parks legislation with the creation of a separate State Park Commission. The commission was appointed by the governor with broad powers to “conserve the scenic, historic, archaeological, scientific and recreational resources of the state.” Yellow Bay, Lone Pine, and Missouri Headwaters State Parks were acquired during this time. The commission took on a lot of responsibility and new projects, but without the funds to support that ambitious development, it dissolved in the early 1950s. State Parks were then transferred to the State Highway Commission. There, under the new State Parks Division, the state park system continued to grow. 19 new parks were added, including some of the state’s most outstanding attractions: Bannack, Makoshika, Medicine Rocks, and sites at Flathead Lake.
The 1960s are recognized as a turning point for Montana’s state park system as well as recreation throughout the nation as President Kennedy saw a coming nationwide outdoor recreation explosion and established a national Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and told states to prepare.
The Montana Department of Fish and Game recognized there would be a similar increase in pressure on its own recreation resources and saw federal funding opportunities through outdoor recreation. State Parks were transferred to Fish and Game in 1965 along with a mandate to conserve and provide recreational and cultural resources. More state parks and funding sources were added in the coming years. In 1978, the agency name was officially changed to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). Montana State Parks are part of the FWP agency but are completely separately funded from fish and wildlife. Montana State Parks receives no hunting and fishing license dollars, for example. In 2013 the Montana State Parks & Recreation Board was created, separating Parks from the Fish & Wildlife Commission. This legislation had great bi-partisan support and was signed into law by Governor Steve Bullock.
Despite challenges of meeting increasing visitor demands with stretched resources, Montana’s state park system has grown to more than 50 state parks, and visitation continues to climb, hitting a record high for park visits last year.
Join us in celebratingMontana State Parks 75th Anniversary in 2014! Explore your State Parks and enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, boating and more, and discover some of the greatest natural and cultural treasures on earth.
Find out more about the development of Montana's state park system in the 1978 Montana Outdoors magazine article ( 750 KB) and learn when each park was acquired in State Parks - Dates of Origin ( 90 KB).