The Problem of Over Commercialization and Privatization of the National Parks

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Snow capped mountain peeks over Yellowstone Lake: Glynn Wilson

By Glynn Wilson –

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – The snow was coming down pretty hard October 5 when we pulled into the Old Faithful Geyser compound, grand central station in the world’s first national park. That’s where private concessionaires Delaware North and Xantara operate the Old Faithful Inn and Lodge, a general store and two gas stations, sucking the profits out of the national parks.

On the way down from the Madison Junction Campground, a handful of bison bulls marched slowly down the right hand side of the road, causing a “Buffalo Jam,” the term National Park Service rangers call a traffic jam due to the presence of wildlife. There are also “Bear Jams” at times, as I experienced in Shenandoah last year. (See photos below).

Some of the tourists delight in this, since it makes it incredibly easy to snap photographs of these rare and endangered creatures on their iPhones. Others seem annoyed that they cannot get on with their quick pass through the park fast enough. It’s a mystery to me why some people seem intent on exceeding the 35 mph speed limit in such a beautiful place full of wildlife crossing the roads. I tend to drive way slower than the speed limit to take it all in.

I guess it’s true that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who respect laws and nature, and those who don’t.

Which brings up an important question: Why are some members of the management in the National Park Service so driven to market the national parks to Budweiser drinkers and others who don’t respect the place when they get here? Tell you what. We’ll get back to that question and some related questions later in this bit of journalistic prose.

Perhaps I should explain why I’m here in the first place before revealing the result of our investigation into the commercialization and privatization of the national parks. I’ve long wanted to follow the route of Lewis and Clark out west and experience the American West. But most of my experience in national parks has occurred in the South and East.

Last year I was a volunteer with the National Park Service in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. While I was there for nearly three months I learned a few things you can’t get from a quick pass down Skyline Drive or even camping for a week or two.

First and foremost, in spite of the constant complaints you hear from conservatives on talk radio and cable television talk shows about the “federal government,” I found most National Park Service rangers to be both knowledgeable and friendly. I came away with the distinct impression that they are top notch professionals who understand the mission of the parks and are not there for the $14 an hour most seasonal rangers make in their six month stints. They just want to work in the most beautiful places on earth and help protect them, and they work hard to give visitors a great experience in the American outdoors.

At the same time, I experienced all kinds of problems with the private concessionaire Delaware North and the minimum wage workers it hires, many of whom did not seem to have a clue where they were or why.

An Awesome Responsibility: Respect and Protect Shenandoah

I witnessed these workers tossing litter on the ground and treating visitors’ concerns carelessly, and watched in horror as dirty grey water was dumped on the ground from a temporary shower trailer set up while a subcontractor renovated the pay showers. While Delaware North and other contractors are charged with renovating some facilities in the parks in exchange for a 15-year contract to make profit from every trinket sold in every store, every meal and gallon of gas, every piece of firewood burned, in this case they farmed out the work to a local subcontractor which was supposed to have the showers fixed and opened by Memorial Day Weekend. They were still working on the building through the Fourth of July holiday, while I had to field complaints from visitors about cold, dirty showers and the flies caused by the grey water on the ground. I helped one supervising ranger document these problems with photos, but the top park management did nothing.

Everybody thought the problems were caused by the “federal government.” As a front line volunteer, I had to be the one to explain that no, the problems were due to a private contractor hired by the National Park Service, a private contractor sucking the profits out of the national parks while the national management was still begging the public to lobby a do nothing Congress for more maintenance money. The park service claims the parks are suffering from a $12 billion backlog in maintenance projects that need to be done, yet it became obvious to me that the money was there in the parks to fix them — if only the government would not farm out the operations of the profit making stores, restaurants and lodges to private companies.

When I asked rangers about this, the only answer they could come up with is that the federal government does not want to be in the “hospitality” business. Considering how well the ranger run campgrounds work and how great the visitors centers are in the parks, this is still a mystery to me. So I wanted to visit other parks where Delaware North holds private contracts to see how things work out west.

In doing research on this issue before heading west, I found out that Delaware North made its money from gambling operations and had been accused in the past of having ties to the mob. Back in the 1970s, the company was accused of contracting to kill an investigative reporter who was looking into these corrupt ties. Hey, you don’t have to believe me. It’s all been well documented by newspaper reporters out west, even if these stories have never been covered much by the mainstream national press or the broadcast media. It’s certainly not being talked about in this presidential election season. None of the debate moderators know enough about this to even ask a question about it.

And it’s not just a bunch of speculation. There was actually a trial about it in the courts. Sports Illustrated did write about it, as did Time magazine. You can Google that if you don’t believe me.

Other research indicates that back in the early 1990s, while Delaware North was making its money mostly from dog tracks and other gambling operations, one of its subsidiaries somehow got the contract to handle the presidential inaugurations of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. So when the contract for Yosemite National Park in California came up for bid in December, 1992, just a couple of months before Bush left office, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan joined an NPS evaluation committee in declaring Delaware North the “only bidder” to meet the criteria set forth in the park prospectus. While environmentalists objected, one newspaper reported that “the fix was in.”

The company was not the best bidder. TW Recreational Service Inc. (now Xanterra, which also holds private contracts in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Park), offered to contribute a higher percentage of profits to the NPS for the $1.5 billion contract, as did The Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation. But just look at the background of Xanterra, which still brags about being connected to the legacy of Fred Harvey, a private profiteer who worked in concert with the corrupt railroad companies of the 19th century to exploit Native Americans and profit from this nation’s natural beauty.

Since being awarded that first contract for an outdoor nature park, Delaware North has expanded into the Grand Canyon and Shenandoah, although earlier this year it lost out on renewal of its contract in Yosemite. And how did the company react? It sued the National Park Service, claiming to own all the names of all the historic places in Yosemite as its “intellectual property.” Is this really the kind of company we want on the front lines of greeting national and international visitors to our national parks? What kind of impression does that leave on the NPS?

Delaware North Loses Contract in Yosemite National Park: Private Company Sues Park Service for $50 Million Claiming Ownership of Park Names, Including Yosemite

Do we really want private companies like this making the money off the places people come to see from all over the world because of “America’s Best Idea” of preserving land for future generations? If you watch the six part series produced by Ken Burns on the national parks, you will see all the stories of how private profiteers had to be kicked out of the parks so the public spaces could be created in the first place. Little does the public know that the private profiteers are back.

So when we made it to the Yellowstone visitors center at Old Faithful, I interviewed a couple of park rangers and experienced the same top notch professionalism I encountered in Shenandoah. We learned about this super volcano’s power and the hot springs, mudpots and geysers.

But when I asked about the private concessionaires, the rangers backed up a step and their language grew guarded. One ranger admitted that employees of Delaware North seemed better and happier than those working for Xanterra, which he said seems to have a lot of turnover since it only pays $9 an hour and tends to “micromanage” the lives of its workers, who are allowed to stay in the national park in park housing while they work for the season.

We heard similar tales in Grand Canyon National Park, and when we met and talked about this issue with a volunteer campground host in one of the campgrounds there, he would not say much. But when he found out what we were doing there, he gave us a wink and a nod and two free nights. As usual when dealing with the mob, people are afraid to talk.

When we interviewed an employee with the Yellowstone Park Foundation, he would not say much about Delaware North or the National Park Service decision to over commercialize the parks and use private profiteers. But he did say due to all the new visitors to the parks this summer thanks to the marketing campaign to promote the parks on the 100th anniversary of the NPS, there had been verified evidence that the shear volume of visitors “did result in environmental damage to the parks.”

All of this leads us to conclude that the next administration in Washington needs to clean house in the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior and change how the parks are run. Perhaps too many employees are left over from the Bush years, when Dick Cheney was in charge of hiring.

It is clear that if the intent is to protect these places, the parks do not need more visitors. The profits need to be pumped back into the parks as if the entire operations were non-profit organizations.

The problem is, if Donald Trump is elected president the problem of using private gambling companies to run the parks will only grow worse. There is already a bill sitting in the hopper in the nation’s capital to privatize the national parks and eliminate the National Park Service, sponsored by the likes of Republican Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas.

This is supported by conservative publications such as The American Spectator.

If this is the kind of America you want, vote Republican on Tuesday, November 8. If not, you might want to vote for Democrats and work to bring pressure to bear to change things in Washington in the years ahead. It’s not that Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton knows anything about this issue or is talking about it in this election. She’s not. But we know from experience that at least you can bring pressure to bear on Democrats. The Republicans could simply not care less.

When I interviewed a conservative cowboy photographer promoting a book in the Yellowstone Foundation Store, he admitted that “Delaware North has been a disaster.” But then he went off on a rant about the problems of the federal government owning so much land out west. When I asked: “So what do we do, turn it all over to the Bundies?” He was speechless.

When the National Park Service held its centennial celebration in Yellowstone in August in a live webcast that was not shown on many PBS stations, most of the speakers touted the benefit of “public private partnerships.” Yes, the parks can benefit with help from non-profit foundations and private companies that want to donate money to help the parks.

Hey, maybe some private companies are better at running hotels and restaurants than a federal agency would be, although it seems to me they could hire managers and provide about the same or better quality service without giving up the profits to private companies. And as government employees, the public, taxpayers, could hold them accountable. With private companies, there is no accountability.

But I wonder if anyone in the federal government has considered that many Native American tribes now have much experience in the “hospitality” business, having operated casinos, hotels and restaurants of their own. Since they still claim treaty rights to all this public land, maybe that should be taken into account in the future management of the parks?

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A buffalo by the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park: Walter Simon

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A buffalo by the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park: Walter Simon

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The Old Faithful geyser going off on schedule: Walter Simon

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have all of this on video, and are working on putting a documentary together about it, which will take way more time and energy. We could use more help to fund this story, if you are so inclined. I rushed this story out today because there is an Amendment 2 on the ballot in Alabama for Nov. 8 which would privatize the state parks. That story will be out shortly.

Fund the Expedition of Rediscovery

Check out this timeline of our trip.

© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

  1 comment for “The Problem of Over Commercialization and Privatization of the National Parks

  1. October 29, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Great and thorough coverage, of this very timely issue. Investigative reporting at its best. Thanks, Mr. Wilson.

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