By Tim Eberly
Jason Belcourt happened upon the dust-coated blueprints while sifting through a closet when he was a seasonal game warden at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation's Parks and Recreation Department in 1996.
It wasn't until last October, though, that Belcourt, now a year-round game warden, began to follow through on ideas hatched more than 30 years ago to improve the 7,500-acre recreational park on the southeast corner of the reservation.
"It was a beautiful idea that deserves a second shot," Belcourt, 32, said Wednesday. "I know this is something great and it had to be done."
Part of the original plans were completed in the 1970s, when the park was open year-round and included a restaurant, lodge, campgrounds and an information center building.
"It was pristine," Belcourt said. "It was really easy on the eyes, but the place has been neglected and has deteriorated."
The only facet of the blueprint that remains in decent condition is the Bear Paw Ski Bowl, which has been operated by the Snowdance Ski Association, a dozen volunteers from Hill County.
"Somewhere along the line, funding ran out and they couldn't make it on their own," Belcourt said. "We lack the manpower to maintain these facilities."
At least two of the buildings the information center and the lodge burned down. The 15 campsites and 10 recreational vehicle campsites along the road are overrun with weeds and brush and have fallen victim to theft and vandalism.
So when a tribal Natural Resources Department supervisor queried him this fall about the Parks and Recreation Department's lack of revenue the department made $134 last year Belcourt remembered the blueprints.
Within a week, Belcourt composed a five-year plan to refurbish the park, and make it a self-sufficient business operation that attracts tourist dollars. Most of the ideas came from the original park plans that were abandoned, but now it's Belcourt's intent to complete the project.
"This is probably the hottest recreational real estate property in north-central Montana, and we need to put people to work," said Belcourt, who said the park will eventually have four full-time employees, including a director and ranger. "I can imagine people coming from all over Eastern Montana."
With the help of his computer-savvy sister, Angie, Belcourt showed his approximately $500,000 project plan in a PowerPoint presentation to the Rocky Boy tribal council twice, in October and December. After his second presentation, the nine members of the tribal council unanimously agreed to give Belcourt $33,000 from the reservation's economic development account to help subsidize the first year.
"I think you have to take it step by step," said Jake Parker, a member of the tribal council. "I think Jason has the ability to put this together."
The tribal council has not committed to funding the whole project, so Belcourt is searching for state and federal grants to pay for the undertaking. One grant has already been secured; in March, the project will receive $32,000 from the Montana Business Commerce Grant.
Weather permitting, Belcourt is planning to break ground on the project in the next two weeks or "as soon as we can get to the hills," he said. The first step, Belcourt says, is clearing the brush from the camping and RV sites, grooming the park's roads and installing "bumper logs" for aesthetic appeal and signs for directional purposes.
The five-year plan calls for the construction of an information center, four rental cabins, five outhouses and two larger restrooms one near the RV park and the other next to the information center. Along with a horseshoe pit and a volleyball court, two gazebos are projected to be built near the camp sites, which will be furnished with picnic tables, cooking grills and trash cans.
A snow-tubing slide is scheduled to be built to complement the ski slopes, providing an economic jolt to the Ski Bowl.
"Anything we can do to enhance outdoor recreation on the Hi-Line, we're 100 percent behind him," said Dave Martens, the member of the Snowdance Ski Association's board of directors who supervises the Ski Bowl. "I think it's great that Jason has taken an interest in it."
Hiking and cross-country ski trails will also be carved into a wildlife refuge that occupies 2,400 acres of the park.
In the final three years of the plan, shower facilities equipped with a washer and dryer will be added, along with a bait shop and canoe rentals near the East Fork Lake.
A celebration of the revitalized park is slated for May. At that time, Belcourt will announce the official name of the park it will be named after one of Rocky Boy's earliest chiefs.
"This is still in its infantile stages," Belcourt said. "It is wishful thinking, but we want to make it a reality."