America’s National Parks, For Sale

Nothing makes me feel more patriotic than our National Park Service. It is miraculous to me that way back when, in the midst of the Civil War, long before human-caused climate change was spoken of, Congress was compelled to protect a swath of canyon and forest located 2,000 miles away in Yosemite Valley. That land was to be placed under state protection, but Congress took heed of activists’ pleas to preserve the land at the federal level. The rest is history: the first nationally protected park was established in Yellowstone, Wyoming seven years later.

Last week, with bear spray holstered to my brother’s cargo shorts, my family visited the enormous Yellowstone Park. Upon entering, I became serenely intimidated—the park was a behemoth of picturesque open space, far larger than one pair of eyes could possibly see in a lifetime. The snow-capped mountains seemed impossibly distant, the views into the canyon were expansive. Our cell signal cut out soon after we entered the park, so I pored over our map to peer into the park’s vastness. I began to wonder how it was possible to shelter, feed and protect all those people in those many idling cars, waiting to enter at the gates of Yellowstone.

The National Park Service (NPS) will be allocated $3.5 billion, a practically unnoticeable drop in government’s total annual budget. Aside from the obvious, the NPS uses those funds to monitor water and air quality, conserve artifacts, educate the public on the management of natural resources and control invasive species. This myriad of responsibilities coupled with the relatively small budget daunts me. How can they possibly make this all work?

Our lodge was in Grant Village, one of a few artificially established towns in Yellowstone. It contains a paltry of two restaurants, large and small general stores, a visitor’s center and the lodges. We checked into our hotel and immediately noticed a couple of oddities.

We found it remarkable that this tiny room lacked usable WiFi, a TV and an alarm clock, and on top of that, the hotel charged for an extra set of sheets. Before you click off this article because the writer sounds like a complete prick for complaining about WiFi, just know that my family did not, in fact, venture to Yellowstone to hang out in our hotel room and toil around on Facebook Live (well, my dad did). Yet the room cost $320 a night, an astonishing price that could easily fetch suitors looking for one night in an upscale New York City hotel.

Most terrifying of all, there was no bathroom in the lobby. This is a death sentence if anyone in your family stinks up the one and only bathroom (everyone in my family does). This peculiar room prompted a little bit of research once we left the park. My question was this: What was all this money for and to whom was it going?

The lodges, general stores and restaurants in Yellowstone are not operated by the National Park Service. In fact, concessions and lodging at nearly every highly trafficked National Park are privatized.

But before I open that can of worms, I should first point out how well the rest of the park was run. At every noteworthy section of Yellowstone, including Old Faithful, West Thumb and Monmouth Springs, there was a ranger station. The rangers were incredibly helpful in recommending trails and describing their conditions. A number of ranger-led talks were offered at multiple locations every night.

In a park visited by millions of people each year, I wasn’t sure what kind of condition in which I would find the trails. The trove of packaged foods and snacks offered in the general stores suggested that litter might be a problem. But the trails were astonishingly clean. I don’t remember seeing one chip bag or water bottle left astary. In fact, they were better marked than any other state or national park I’d ever been in.

There are services, however, that the NPS chooses to privatize. It sells contracts to concessionaires, mega-companies that provide lodging services and food. In Yellowstone, the hotels are operated by Xanterra Travel Collection. Xanterra is the final product of a long line of travel company takeovers that dates back to the Fred Harvey Company, one of America’s pioneering nationwide restaurant chains. In 1968, Fred Harvey was bought by Amfac, a tourism-specific corporation. In 2002, Amfac rebranded to Xanterra.

I couldn’t find when Xanterra initially won the contract to operate in Yellowstone, or in any other national park for that matter, but it is clear that the corporation has invested quite a few resources in infrastructure alone. In 2015, Xanterra asked the Denver-based district court to halt the NPS’s decision to grant additional privatized contracts at the Grand Canyon’s south rim. Because Xanterra’s contract promises reimbursement, in the case that another company wins a piece of its Yellowstone territory, competition is minimal. The NPS even offered a $100 million-dollar bonus to entice competition, but Xanterra argued that the government was unfairly meddling in the market. 

In 2013, the NPS granted Xanterra a 20-year extension in Yellowstone park. For another decade and a half, Xanterra should have no competition in one of America’s most popular tourist destinations.

It seems irresponsible to grant such a long contract in such a fragile ecosystem. It gets a little more bizarre when you consider who actually owns Xanterra: namely, Phillip Anschutz.

Anschutz is an American billionaire whose assets include, of all things, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. He also owns Windstar Cruises. It is painfully ironic that the same man who has championed respect for the natural environment in several National Parks also owns a cruise line, a notoriously high-polluting enemy of the environment.

That the National Park service contracts its concessions and lodgings to a Koch brother-adjacent multibillion-dollar corporation—one that leverages their facilities against competitions—is unsettling, but unsurprising given its history.

Back in the 1860s, an enterprising promoter named James Hutchings established a hotel in Yosemite Valley. The hotel was technically illegal, as he was operating his private business in a public state park. In 1864, Hutchings sued for the right to operate his hotel. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Hutchings lost his case and his hotel. But by bringing his case to the Supreme Court, Hutchings inadvertently established precedent for the creation of the National Park system.

James Hutchings gave another key contribution to the park service. Before the suit, he had hired John Muir, at that point a wiry 31-year-old Scotsman, to build and maintain his saw mill. Hutchings provided him a home in his beloved Yosemite Valley. Through his religious and enchanting renderings of the park, Muir would do just as much in the wilderness to preserve the National Parks as Hutchings did in the courts.

Though incongruous and concerning, private corporations have been a part of National Parks since the beginning. In some ways, privatization has helped maintain the vaunted position of public parks in the American imagination. If the National Parks are going to last in perpetuity, it seems someone will always have to be financially incentivized to support them and their luminaries. Merely supporting National Parks for the benefit of mankind is, apparently, too much to ask.

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