After nearly 60 years of state oversight, Hell Creek State Park was officially handed over to the management of the Montana Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians last week.
“The Little Shell Tribe now manages the Hell Creek Recreation Area and is taking reservations for this recreation season,” said Michele Fromdahl, natural resources officer for the US Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Peck.
For now, the tribe is operating under the auspices of previous tenant, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, whose lease expires in April 2023. Although FWP approved the change last year, it took the Corps more time. to approve the terms. .
“We expect to begin work on a new lease with the Little Shell Tribe this fall,” Fromdahl said.
The Corps is responsible for overseeing the management of much of the land surrounding the vast Fort Peck Reservoir in northeastern Montana. The lease for the 337-acre park is free for the tribe.
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“We are very excited,” said Gerald Gray, president of the Little Shell Tribal Council. “I think we can give the park back what it was.”
The remote state park, 40 miles north of Jordan in Garfield County, has been plagued by unrest since 2015 when Montana’s state park administrator suggested the agency might not renew his lease unless financial partners come forward. Operating the lakefront development required costly upgrades that were not justified by the low usage, the agency said, meaning the park was operating in deficit.
Hell Creek attracts about 30,000 visitors each year to its 71 campsites, 44 of which have electrical hookups.
After the state’s announcement, Garfield County commissioners and a user group considered taking over management.
Adding to the troubles, then-Gov. Steve Bullock fired the state parks administrator in 2017 and also fired most of the parks board members. It took nearly a year before a new administrator, Beth Shumate, was hired. Shumate has since been reassigned to a new role of assistant administrator.
The entire parks agency was overhauled after Greg Gianforte took over as governor last year. Montana State Parks is now called the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. At the head of the division is new administrator Hope Stockwell. The parks board is also an essentially new group of people.
In 2019, the Little Shells threw their hats in the ring to exploit Hell Creek. The following year, then-FWP director Martha Williams reported that the state had reassessed its commitment to the park and planned to renew its 20-year lease in 2021.
That changed when the Gianforte administration took over, appointing Hank Worsech to head Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. In April last year, the new manager announced that he planned to hand over the lease to Little Shell.
In addition to a relatively new $700,000 water and sewage system, the park also includes a fish cleaning station, boat launch, showers and bathrooms, an area playground, a group picnic area and an RV dump station.
The Hell Creek Marina, operated by Clint and Deb Thomas, subleases property on which the family runs a small store, motel, gas pumps and docks. Like the state, the tribe will honor the Thomases’ third-party agreement, Gray said.
Next year, after the state lease expires, the tribe will have to negotiate new agreements with the Thomases and the Corps.
Gray said the tribe will start the season with three to four employees who have been trained by state park workers.
“Visitors can expect much the same as last year,” Gray said, “except groups needing to use the common building will not be charged.”