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‘Record breaking visitation’ at Montana parks continues after pandemic year

Montana’s park system experienced a 44% increase in visitation during the first six months of 2021 compared to the same time in the pre-pandemic 2019.

The numbers continue to grow and continue to set records, Pat Doyle, marketing manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told The Center Square.

“Just for a little bit of context, our 2020 year, obviously a pandemic year, where we had record breaking visitation, we had almost an additional million people across our park system. And this year is a lot more of the same,” he said.

During the first half of 2021, an estimated 1.57 million people visited Montana’s state parks. Compared to last year, that was an 11.1% increase, according to the 2021 Midyear Montana State Parks Visitation Report. That was approximately 480,804 more visitors than in 2019.

Montana is a big state with a lot of world-class outdoor recreation across it, Doyle said. When residents had a lot of downtime and COVID restrictions, it invited a lot of people to explore their own state more than they have in the past, he said.

Everyone has outdoor recreation bucket lists no matter where they live, he said. The pandemic gave them an opportunity to explore places like someone from western Montana coming out to Makoshika State Park or Medicine Rocks, Doyle said, to explore different landscapes across the state.

“I think that one of the great things about our state park system is that it really tells the story of Montana from a lot of different perspectives, that [it] can be not just recreational but historical, cultural and from a lot of different perspectives from ghost towns to battlefields. I think it really gave people an opportunity to be more immersed in their state, where maybe vacations would have taken them out of state maybe to Washington or Oregon or Idaho,” he said.

The pandemic kept Montana residents in the state, and he said they found some gems they might not have discovered without that extra push.

A lot of parks in Montana get high visitation whether it’s during the pandemic or not, Doyle said, like water-based parks including Flathead Lake. It’s the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi with seven parks, including a 2,000-acre island.

Where the park system has seen a big jump in visitors is in day use cultural and historical parks, such as First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, which is significant to 13 tribes across the western United States and is just south of Great Falls.

People are visiting parks that they might have considered off the beaten path, like Bannack State Park, which is Montana’s first territorial capital.

“It’s an incredible ghost town with over 100 buildings you can still walk in on Main Street,” Doyle said.

Visitors can dive into the culture and the history of the state at these sites.

The fire season didn’t impact anything during the first six months of the year. The last time the park system had a bad fire season was in 2017, during which it had dips in day visitors. Smoke did affect people going to swim or go on a hike.

“But our campsite reservation program continued to stay really strong during those times because there is immense value in that, especially people coming from out of state,” he said.

In 2017, if someone canceled a campsite reservation because of smoke, within 24 hours that reservation would be snapped up by someone else. It does impact visitation, he said. Compared to 20 years ago, Doyle said he thinks a lot more conversation is taking place about the impacts of recreation when the air quality is poor.

What 2020 showed Montanans, especially employees, is that setting up public health and safety protocols and high visitation measures enables the park system to handle large numbers of visitors whether it’s during a pandemic or not, he said.

“Obviously the safety of our staff and the safety of our visiting public is our number one priority and always will be. But it was a real opportunity to see that we know if our visitation continues to increase, we do have a lot of systems in place to mitigate that at different parks,” Doyle said.

Those measures included capping the number of vehicles entering parks on certain days and during certain high visitation times. Social distancing and ticketed entry are other measures being used.

“It’s not an easy thing to be working in a climate with high visitation and a lot of these parks, especially the ones that have significant camping opportunities. It’s kind of like a town that springs up for four or five months of the year,” Doyle said.

This article was originally posted on ‘Record breaking visitation’ at Montana parks continues after pandemic year

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