Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The Bureau of Land Management needs to increase fees at Garnet Ghost Town or some services may be lost, the agency said this week.

BLM Missoula Field Manager Erin Carey told the Western Montana Resource Advisory Council why fees must increase at Garnet Ghost Town for the first time since 2005. Garnet Ghost Town is east of Missoula in the Blackfoot Valley and among the oldest intact ghost towns in Montana.

“The bread-and-butter of Garnet Ghost Town is the presence (of staff),” Carey said. “One is the actual maintaining of the physical site itself. Because it is a historic site, we have to meet certain historic preservation standards. Having the staff present during the operating months helps us see to the general day-to-day upkeep. It also protects those structures from vandalism, which we have unfortunately seen quite a bit of in recent years and we haven’t had adequate staffing levels.”

The BLM currently charges $3 for people 16 and older to visit during the summer season. They are proposing to increase the fee to $10 a person. No fees are charged for use during the winter or for kids younger than 16.

The BLM based that increase on the fees of similar interpretive sites in the area. For example, the Nevada City ghost town charges $10 and $8 for youth and the World Museum of Mining in Butte charges $12 and $8 for youth.

There are also two cabins for rent at the ghost town, and the BLM would like to increase their fee to $50 a night. Currently, the Dahl Cabin is $40 per night, and the smaller MacDonald cabin is $30. They based this increase on nearby U.S. Forest Service cabins, which run $45-$75 a night.

The BLM needs to raise more money, because more visitors mean more pressure, more demands and more damage.

Over the past decade, the number of visitors to Garnet Ghost Town has doubled to more than 30,000 visitors a year. About a third of those are kids younger than 16 and a quarter are people who have bought the America the Beautiful park passes and they contribute no revenue. So at $3 per person, the average annual revenue for Garnet comes out to about $28,500.

But that doesn’t cover the needs of a historic site that is getting an increasing amount of use. It costs about $304,000 to maintain the site, provide interpretation and assistance, and service latrine, water and waste systems.

About $217,000 of that goes to staff costs, and the site is understaffed for the demand, with just one seasonal park ranger and a cadre of volunteers, Carey said. In the Missoula Office, four other employees also lend support - including an archeologist, law enforcement ranger and outdoor recreation planners - but they have other responsibilities.

With the increased fee revenue, Carey could hire an additional career seasonal park ranger and a sorely-needed seasonal maintenance worker. That would also provide increased opportunity for guided tours and publications and ensure the facilities get the care they require. For example, the BLM recently used Light Detection and Ranging technology, or LIDAR, to measure the buildings for any change so they can prioritize where stabilization might be needed.

Main Street of historic Garnet. (BLM photographic archives)
Main Street of historic Garnet. (BLM photographic archives)
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If the fee increase is not approved, the site and its opportunities could be diminished, Carey said. There is already a backlog of maintenance projects and visitors have registered dissatisfaction during a time when the BLM didn’t have a ranger on site to answer questions.

“When we are not present, or don’t have adequate staffing, we do see increased occurrence of vandalism, decreased user satisfaction, and we aren’t able to staff the visitor center,” Carey said. “Probably one of the first things to fall off the list - but certainly the hardest for us to say no to - is the ability to offer tours to schools. They’re one of the first things to go when you have to focus on critical maintenance.”

The Garnet Ghost Town proposed business plan is currently available for public comment until Jan. 16. If approved, the fees will go into effect this year. For more information, follow this link.

The BLM has been doing outreach about the plan for the past few months and has received nine comments so far. Only one commenter said there should be no fees while others supported different variations of fees.

The advisory committee voted to support the fee increase but reserved the right to reconsider if a significant issue was raised once all the public comment is in. Also factoring into the timing: two members will be leaving the committee on Jan. 15, and the part of the government shutdown affecting the BLM could occur on Feb. 2 if Congress can’t agree on a budget.

“I am really impressed with Garnet today as opposed to the first time I saw it 40 or 50 years ago,” said RAC member Jean Belangie-Nye of Lolo. “It’s one of the museums of Missoula County that we forget to count. We have 15 historical museums or sites in Missoula County, and I think Garnet is a special gem that needs to be protected.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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