In response to county letter, Forest Service indicates no plan to close Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

During Tuesday’s meeting, City Commissioners issued a proclamation in support of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Commissioner Mary Moe did not sign the proclamation since she serves on the state Park and Recreation Board.

Late last year, rumors began to swirl that one of the options on the table was to close the center in Great Falls due to budget cuts.

County Commissioners, Lewis and Clark Foundation concerned about future of interpretive center in Great Falls

County Commissioners sent a letter to the National Park Service office in Helena asking for information and expressing their concern about the center.

Both the county and city invested in bringing the center to Great Falls, $200,000 from the city, according to the proclamation.

The center has been supported by the Lewis and Clark Foundation, which also expressed concern in December, about the future of the facility.

The Great Falls City Commission hereby reaffirms and restates its prior support for the public-private partnership that brought the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center into existence; and the Commission further supports efforts in our community to work with the United States Forest Service to preserve and sustain the Center, and encourages the Forest Service to welcome these community initiatives,” the proclamation states. 

According to a letter from William Avey, supervisor for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and the interpretive center, to Cascade County Commissioners, “I have no plans to close the LCIC at this time.”

Over the last decade, the Forest Service has seen a 50 percent decrease in funds for the recreation program, which includes the interpretive center, according to Kathy Bushnell, spokeswoman for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

That funding is for the entire recreation program, including maintenance, improvements, enhancements, etc. of all of motorized and non-motorized trails, campgrounds, dispersed campsites, rental cabins, etc., along with the LCIC, Bushnell wrote in an email to The Electric.

“So when we have a declining budget, we look at how we can continue to provide quality services and programs for the public across the entire 3-million-acre forest, including within the LCIC, with less money,” Bushnell wrote. “We have to do this with all of our programs that experience a funding decrease—so this is not unique to the LCIC, it’s simply that the LCIC is part of the recreation program and we, as a forest, need to make decisions on how to manage the entire program with less funding, and still meet the needs and desires of the public—which includes adequately maintained trails, clean/safe campgrounds, as well as quality programs at the LCIC.”

Bushnell said the Forest Service is looking to partner with Cascade County Commissioners and the Lewis and Clark Foundation to seek grants, additional partners, and other avenues to keep the center operational.

“The LCIC means a lot to us, and it’s clear that it means a lot to the commission, the community of Great Falls, the Lewis & Clark Foundation, and so many others; we invite all who are interested to be part of the path forward and help us plan for the future with the LCIC,” Bushnell wrote.

In Avey’s letter, he informed county commissioners that no decision had yet been made about the management structure at the center.

In fiscal year 2017, Avey wrote, the interpretive center received about $380,000 in recreation funds, or about 31 percent of the entire forest’s recreation budget.

“Spending nearly a third of the entire forest’s recreation funds on one facility, even one as significant as the LCIC is not sustainable, and requires adjusting the allocation of funds,” Avey wrote.

In early December 2017, Avey wrote that the decision was made to reduce the interpretive center’s budget by about $150,000 from recreation and facility maintenance funds and redistribute those funds to the ranger districts’ recreation and facility maintenance programs across the forest.

A new director at the center has been asked to develop a long-term strategy, Avey wrote, and that should be completed this spring.

In their letter, county commissioners expressed a frustration that the Forest Service hadn’t engaged community partners in developing new strategies, specifically the Lewis and Clark Foundation.

In response, Avey wrote that the Forest Service has been meeting regularly with the foundation, as well as other partners including the Portage Route Chapter.

A public-private partnership model has been discussed for years and in the county letter, commissioners wrote that the Forest Service wasn’t supportive of the concept and draft federal legislation was abandoned.

Avey wrote that those plans to develop a formal partnership started around 2007 and that the Forest Service participate in the effort until 2016, when the Lewis and Clark Foundation requested that Sen. Jon Tester to remove his bill specific to the LCIC.

Avey wrote that there were issues with the business plan since it didn’t comply federal laws; ownership rights and no sponsor for companion legislation came forward in the U.S. House of Representatives, effectively killing the effort.