By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – On March 29, the Big Sky Community Organization released the findings of a community needs assessment survey designed to inform a parks master plan currently being drafted by Peaks to Plains Design, a Billings-based civil engineering and parks planning firm.

The results—which above all emphasize the importance of the community’s trail system—were largely in accordance with feedback garnered in public town meetings and focus groups, said Peaks to Plains founder Jolene Rieck.

Although the primary purpose of the survey was to assess the community’s usage and rating of its parks and open spaces, the continued development of Big Sky’s multi-use trail system—especially increasing its interconnectivity—was a clear priority based on the responses of the 271 individuals who made up the sample for analysis.

Of those 271 individuals, 143 were classified as residents. Most were full-time residents, although eight respondents qualified as part-time. The sample also included 128 investors, or owners of at least one residential rental unit who do not spend at least six months per year in Big Sky themselves. The groups were also broken down into households with and without children.

Peaks to Plains found that 56 percent of Big Sky residents visit the community’s parks and open spaces more than twice a month. Households with children are most likely to be the most frequent users of these and other recreational amenities.

Trails saw the highest usage with 93 percent of respondents reporting they had used community trails in the previous 12 months, followed closely by trailhead amenities such as restrooms and parking areas. Athletic field and playground usage, boosted by households with children, showed strongly as well.

A chart that plotted usage against ratings of overall conditions suggested the dog-friendly area, golf course, park and trailhead restrooms and parking areas—which saw high use but average ratings—could be areas to invest in improvements.

Respondents also ranked their priorities for existing and additional recreational options, amenities and facilities.

Residents and investors had different criteria for rating. Residents were asked to choose which set of five options best and least met their household’s recreational needs. Investors ranked priorities according to which options would best and least enhance their property value.

For residents, multi-use trails took an overwhelming lead, followed by a multi-generational recreation center, an amphitheater and increased river access, in that order.

Although the numbers were slightly skewed, the same amenities and venues came out on top for investors—the only difference being increased river access ranked higher than the addition of an amphitheater.

Regarding the expressed interest in a multi-purpose recreation center, BSCO Executive Director Ciara Wolfe said the nonprofit has identified a couple of parcels that individuals are ready to donate when the community is ready.

“The data and big picture is not divergent from what we’ve heard from the community so it’s pretty reliable information,” said Rieck, who is on track to have the Big Sky Parks Master Plan ready for public review between the end of May and mid-June.

“A parks master plan is a tool for our community to ensure that as we continue to grow we include the desired recreation and parks amenities of this community in a strategic and thoughtful manner,” Wolfe said.

She added that adoption by both counties formalizes the plan and gives it leverage as a guiding document for future development proposals and public funding requests.

As a result of the public survey which identified trails as Big Sky’s highest priority and use, BSCO has started the process of updating the community’s current master trails plan, now more than a decade old.

With funding in place for an updated trails plan, which will focus specifically on the community’s trails and pathways, BSCO hopes to hire a firm in May and begin data collection in July, the same month the finalized parks plan, which tackles recreation in a broader sense, will be submitted to both county commissions for adoption.

“This process will entail a lot of community and public engagement,” Wolfe said. “We hope that between these two planning processes we develop a vision and project outline for our community that they can wrap their arms around, get excited [about] and involved with and ultimately feel ownership of the outcomes these plans will create.”

The complete results of the community needs assessment survey are available at bscomt.org and the next BSCO meeting will be held June 21.