Holmlund goes to bat for Hell Creek State Park

Although Hell Creek State Park is not in Ken Holmlund’s Montana house district, the Republican representative from Miles City has led the effort in the legislature to fix some of the issues with the park. He has done so because many of his constituents use the recreation area and the topic is frequently bought up to him.

Although many issues remain, some of the problems that have plagued Hell Creek State Park for the past several years will be dealt with this summer.

The 2015 legislature appropriated $1.5 million for the park, which sits on 337 acres of land along an arm of Fort Peck Lake.

At a public meeting in Miles City last year, it was explained by Fish, Wildlife and Park officials that the funds are being used to fix some of the most important water and sewer issues at Hell Creek.

The popular fish cleaning station at the park will be taken off the park’s general septic system and will have a separate system. This should relieve one of the most problematic issues at the park for the last few seasons.

Septic tanks that were meant to be pumped only twice or so a season were geing overwhelmed by the waste from the fish cleaning station, and required pumping once every two weeks.

However, the 26-mile dirt and gravel road to Hell Creek is in poor condition. It is maintained by Garfield County, which can’t afford to make expensive repairs. The road alone discourages many visitors, Holmlund said.

Holmlund has personally asked a expert on gravel roads to check out the road and make suggestions. The expert has recommended application of magnesium chloride  and some “good 3/4 inch crushed gravel,” Holmlund said.

An additional 48 members of the House of Representatives have also signed on to make paying for improvements to the Hell Creek Road a priority, according to Holmlund. 

Another issue at the park is the online reservation system operated by a company in Idaho. It shows the 44 sites that have electric hookups, but not the 27 overflow sites. 

“Lots of self-contained [camping] units don’t need the electricity,” said Holmlund, noting many campers would be satisfied with a non-electrified site.

Holmlund said a “banner” will be displayed on the reservations page explaining that even if all the sites are officially full, there is often overflow camping available.

“Fish, Wildlife and Parks heard what we had to say,” about the reservations system and will respond. There will be a new contract that will address some of the issues,” Holmlund said.

State Sen. Eric  Moore, R-Miles City, praised Holmlund for going to bat for the park. He said the park is important for eastern Montana and for tourism.

“Ken’s done a super job taking it under his wing and spearheading it. ... I fully support him.” Moore said.

In addition to general state funding, Hell Creek collects fees. In 2015, the annual operating budget for the park was $213,000 but revenues generated were only $113,000.

 About 30,000 people a year visit Hell Creek, according to Holmlund, who said he would like to see those numbers increase to 50,000 to “break even” financially.

There’s plenty for visitors to do.

Hell Creek features the campground, a playground, a hiking trail, a picnic shelter, a boat launch, showers, public restrooms, groceries, gasoline and a private marina.

The state parks system does not charge an admission fee for state residents, but fees are collected for campsites. For residents, electrified campsites are $24 a day. For campsites with no power, the charge is $18 a day. Non-residents are charged a $6 admission fee if they enter with a motorized vehicle. 

Holmlund said he feels that the state park system employs too many full-time workers — four — to man Hell Creek during the summer season.

Pat Doyle, marketing and communications manager for Montana State Parks, is familiar with Hell Creek and it’s problems. “I stayed out there with my parents long before I was working for the Parks Department and it is beautiful country,” he said.

Doyle confirmed some of the changes for Hell Creek, including taking the fish cleaning station off the main septic system and making changes to the reservation pages to “make the language more clear.”

He also confirmed that the contract for the concessionaire at Hell Creek had been extended to 2021, when the state’s current contract with the Army Corps of Engineers  expires.

Hell Creek is on land leased from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, making it unique in the state park system. The state operates the park under what is called an “out-lease” and pays nothing for the property. 

In order to save money, Montana State Parks has considered turning the property over to the Corps, but the Corps officials said they would not manage the property as a park.

The long-term plan is for the state to review the Hell Creek situation again in 2019 to see if any solutions have been found to the issues.