Yellowstone and Grand Teton Superintendents call for continued funding for park infrastructure
The superintendents of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks discussed increased visitation and advocated for revitalizing park infrastructure at the recent Western Governors Association winter meeting in Jackson. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly shared that the park is on track to have a total of 4.6 million visitors this year – and that those numbers will likely continue to rise. The park had 4.8 million visitors in 2021, setting a record for its busiest year yet.
Yellowstone is working to maintain visitor satisfaction as more people visit the park while also protecting the area’s wildlife and nature. Sholly said there are some less glamorous details to consider, like emptying garbage cans and maintaining bathrooms.
“You put a million more people in that park each year flushing the toilet five times per day, what's it doing to your wastewater systems? We went through 30 million feet of toilet paper last year – that’s 5,600 miles if you want to do the math,” he said.
Sholly said the park’s current wastewater systems were built in the early and middle parts of the 20th century, when less than two million people visited Yellowstone annually.
Grand Teton National Park is struggling with similar issues and shared plans to replace or improve four of its wastewater and water systems in an Infrastructure Fact Sheet published at the end of the 2022 fiscal year.
Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins said two federal acts that support projects like sewer system maintenance and bathrooms in the parks will expire in the next few years. Backing for the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund will expire in 2025, a source that is specifically for revitalizing infrastructure. Jenkins said the fund has currently supported over 131 projects with $4 billion across the National Park Service. $431 million of that funding has gone to projects in Wyoming.
Yellowstone Superintendent Sholly said that money is essential for replacing bridges, like the heavily-traveled Yellowstone River Bridge to Lamar Valley. The park is currently working on replacing the bridge using federal funding – Sholly said the project is now slated to cost $180 million.
“Aside from the life safety issues, there's access issues…the bridge that's there now is within five years of probably being condemned, so not replacing that bridge is not an option,” he said.
Additionally, funding for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will expire in 2026. Jenkins said a big part of that money comes to the parks through the Federal Lands Transportation Program, which helps support the improvement of roads, bridges, and trails.
Both men advocated for the support of and the reauthorization of the two funding sources in the coming years. Sholly said it’s important that the money is both being invested properly and at the right time.
“What I would hate to see would be us to have this opportunity to catch up and to invest significantly in improving the condition of our assets across the country, only to fall back or go backwards because of a lack of funding in the future,” he said.
In addition to keeping infrastructure up to date, Sholly said meeting the demands of increased visitation at Yellowstone also requires an increase in staffing. He said he is seeing staffing levels “staying flat or declining,” and noted that affordable housing shortages in gateway communities are a significant barrier in helping meet the need for workers.
Superintendent Jenkins echoed Sholly’s sentiment and said that finding housing for employees is “the single biggest limiting thing for us for our workforce.”
Jenkins said Grand Teton National Park now houses about 95 percent of its employees, which includes 150 to 160 year-round workers and a similar amount of seasonal summer workers.
“I would prefer not to be in the housing business, there's no upside for us in terms of spending time that way. But in order for us to be able to operate, that's what we need to be able to do,” he said.
The Grand Teton Superintendent also mentioned that the National Park Service faces challenges in hiring and retaining employees, in part due to their early application timeline. The agency recruits people for summer work from October to the start of January during a 90-day period.
“Most businesses do not have to do not have systems where you're attempting to ask people to apply for a job that far in advance for a 120 day job,” Jenkins said. “Given the way that the workforce is changing, we need to figure out how to have a system that is lining up with American workers' expectations.”
Grand Teton National Park just issued a contract to build five new houses in Moose, a small town inside the park. Jenkins said the funding came from a $7 million budget increase specifically for National Park housing from Congress in fiscal year ‘23. There is a similar request for this year’s budget to help alleviate the ongoing stress of providing housing for park employees.