By Ron VandenBoom
Mel Gomke, who was embroiled in the controversy over fencing off both sides of the Beaver Creek Highway, has become the newest member of the Hill County Park Board.
Gomke, who has a cabin in county-owned Beaver Creek Park, publicly squabbled with local ranchers when the Hill County commissioners and the Park Board were struggling with the issue of what to do about state-mandated requirements for maintaining Montana Highway 234 through the park.
Gomke said he believes he was picked because the county commissioners, who made the appointment, felt it was better to have him inside the tent helping them than outside the tent causing trouble.
County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said Gomke won the appointment over three other candidates because he has a lot of good ideas about how to improve the park.
"What we look at is the individual," Bessette said. "It had nothing to do with the fence issue."
State regulations required construction of a fence on both sides of the highway and an increase in the speed limit through the park to 55 mph. The requirements upset ranchers, who graze their cattle in the park during winter months, and those who believed the fence would be a scenic nightmare that would limit recreational activities.
Gomke was a member of Friends of Beaver Creek Park, an adhoc group of residents opposed to the fence idea. The County commissioners appointed Gomke to a 16-member committee that eventually worked out a proposal for a meandering fence located away from the roadway. He spoke to many groups and organizations about the proposal and became a common figure in the hot debate on the fence issue.
Recreationists supported the meandering fence proposal but cattlemen opposed it.
"I took a lot of flak for wanting to move the fence back," Gomke said.
The controversy led to passage of a bill in the Legislature this year that gave the county a waiver from the state regulations.
Gomke has been on the Beaver Creek Park Foundation Board for more than a year and has continued to offer concerns and solutions about the park.
One concern Gomke said needs to be addressed is what to do now that the park has a waiver from the road requirements.
He said the bill adopted by the Legislature still requires the county within a reasonable time to address the problems of traffic, roaming cattle and a fence. If it doesn't, the state can move in and say, "OK, you guys, if you're not going to do something, we will."
Gomke said he would also like to see the board develop some long-range goals and a yearly plan for development of the park. He said he would like to see more recreational development on the lower lake and a plan to replace some of the older cottonwood trees in the park.
"What I really want to do is find some neutral ground for the parties interested in the park and I'd really like to see more development out there," he said.
Steve Mariani, chairman of the Park Board, said Gomke, who attended his first meeting this month, is still trying to get a handle on things.
"I think he'll do fine," Mariani said.
Mariani acknowledged that things have not always been pleasant between Gomke and the board, primarily because of the fence issue.
"There are some things you can do something about and other things you can't," he said, explaining that the Park Board had no control over the state regulations that were going to impose a fence on the county. "It was a little rocky."