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Yellowstone to use a $40 million gift to continue upgrading employee housing

A group of people stand around a person cutting a ribbon.
National Park Service
Jacob W. Frank
For the first phase of Goal 1 of Yellowstone's "Focus on the Core" strategic priority, the park is replacing outdated trailers with high quality modular homes.

With low inventory and high prices in gateway communities, housing for Yellowstone National Park employees has been an issue for awhile.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz spoke to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly about how the park will use a recently announced $40 million gift to continue investing in employee housing. The funding was given to The National Park Foundation and National Park Service from anonymous donors.

The conversation started with Sholly sharing housing upgrades the park has made recently.

Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Cam Sholly: We've gotten rid of all of the 1960’s and 70’s trailers and replaced them with very comfortable, high quality modular housing. That's been really, really huge. We've also put a considerable amount of effort into rehabilitating other housing units, many of which hadn't been touched since the 80’s or 90’s. Carpets and appliances, things like that, that we need to have good housing to attract and retain good employees.

This donation is helping us address something that hasn't been funded up to this point, which is an issue that has been developing for years, and is going to get worse as we move forward, not just here in Yellowstone, but in parks across the National Park System. And that is, parks that border expensive gateway communities like West Yellowstone or Gardiner or Jackson Hole, where the availability of long-term rentals simply really doesn't exist anymore. Most of the rentals have turned into Airbnbs, Vrbos. And so even if employees want to live outside the park, it's become more and more difficult for that to happen. Housing prices in many of these areas I just described are very, very expensive, unaffordable, especially to lower graded employees, even higher graded employees for that matter.

And I'll give you an example: Here in Mammoth, where headquarters is, about five miles from Gardiner, Montana, we have somewhere around 100 employees that had housing outside the park, and they bought their houses back in the 90’s, early 2000’s, when you could buy a house in Gardiner for $150,000. A huge portion of that group of people, that's just one location in the park, are retiring. They've hit their 30 year mark or 35 years, and they're moving on with life. And these are critical positions, things like plumbers, or radio technicians, or snowplow drivers, or you name it. And so when we go to replace those positions, their replacements can't afford housing, and there's no rentals.

So what this $40 million is going to do is actually allow us to add housing capacity to counterbalance what's happening outside the park. And we think that this is going to be a huge help over the next couple of years because we have had numerous people turn jobs down because of a lack of housing.

Olivia Weitz: When you say adding on to housing capacity, do you mean that the park is going to add more housing inventory within the park? Can you tell us more specifically about how those funds will be used?

CS: We'll continue with a modular approach. We're going to look at some different types of modulars. The modulars we've put in over the last couple of years to replace trailers have been primarily for seasonal employees because the seasonals were the ones living in the trailers. So this next round of modulars that we'll add to the housing inventory will be a mix of one, two, and three bedrooms designed to give us flexibility for whatever demographic we end up hiring. And we have sometimes single people, sometimes couples, couples with a kid, couples with a couple kids. So we need a full range of one, two, and three bedrooms around different locations in the park. And we're doing a very careful assessment of how many units are needed, where they need to be placed. And that's what we will be focused on here with this donation over the next couple of years.

OW: Do you know how many new modular units you'll be able to build with the funds or are you still assessing that?

CS: We're assessing that, but it'll be probably 70 plus, in that range. And all of those units will go into existing developed areas. So we're not necessarily expanding the developed footprint of the park. About zero to two, three percent of the park is parking lots and hotels and housing and things like that. We're going to stay within those developed footprints anywhere we decide to put additional housing.

OW: Why is investing in employee housing important? Why is that a priority for Yellowstone at this time?

CS: You want to attract the best of the best no matter what industry you're in. And housing is not just an issue within the National Parks across America, it's an issue in many sectors across the country, especially in areas that are resort communities, things like that that are very expensive. Whether you're a restaurant owner or a hotel owner, or you're running a national park, you need high-quality employees to come in and help you operate things to the standard you want. And as we look at last year, having our second busiest year on record, it takes people to manage people. And it takes people to protect this park. And so you want the best of the best doing that. The best of the best aren't going to come and either live in trailers, or they're not going to come to areas where they can't have or afford quality of life off work.

OW: Looking forward to the summer, what are you anticipating? What are you looking forward to? What are some of the challenges that you foresee for Yellowstone in the summer?

CS: Last year was the first year we didn't have a flood or COVID for awhile. It was nice to have, I guess, what you consider a normal year. It was really busy. I think this year will be equally busy. We're continuing to really pay attention to increasing visitation and what impacts increasing visitation have on the resources of this park. What impacts does increasing visitation have on staffing and infrastructure.

Once again, it takes people to manage people. You've got to have the right level of staff in this place to manage increasing visitation. And so people don't really think about what it takes to empty 2,000 garbage cans four times a day instead of two. Or you put a million more people in this park flushing the toilet five times per day. What's that do to your wastewater systems? We treated over 100 million gallons of drinking water last year for visitors. There's a lot of invisible things that people just kind of don't think about. And so for us to continue to manage increasing visitation, our staffing has got to keep pace with that. And that's probably the biggest challenge is making sure that we've got adequate staff in the right locations throughout the upcoming year. We're doing a lot of hiring right now for the upcoming season. And we'll see what happens, but I think it's going to be a good year.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.

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