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December 2005

National Parks Inc.

Like it or not, national parks are officially in the business of business. Will this focus destroy the soul of a national institution - or save it in these lean times?

Regular visitors to northwestern Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park may not have noticed much difference this summer when they pitched their tents at the park’s five campgrounds. The same old sites were still there. The occasional moose still plodded by, and at night, rangers still gave campfire talks.

But a visitor with a keen eye might have wondered: Where was the usual campground staff? In the past, 13 seasonal National Park Service employees managed the campgrounds’ daily operations. This summer, those jobs were shifted to employees of the Grand Teton Lodge and Signal Mountain Lodge Companies, private hospitality operations. The new employees wore company uniforms, not the familiar NPS khakis. Job postings on the Grand Teton Lodge Company’s Web site listed 25 openings for managers, supervisors, and attendants paying between $7.15 and $7.90 an hour.

The change in uniforms – and the people who wear them – was spurred by an unsurprising motive: to save money. Grand Teton, like so many parks today, is feeling a cash crunch. Privatizing campsite operations, park officials say, will result in much-needed short-term savings of $150,000 or so on staff, supplies, and routine maintenance. Over the long haul, these contracts also spell out how the concessionaires, and not the park itself, will pay the $10 to $20 million needed to make overdue renovations, such as putting in more Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant facilities and adding power hookups that RV campers want.

“It’s like having a 50-year-old house that needs a lot of work,” explains park spokesperson Joan Anzelmo. She says the park has been hit hard by rising fuel costs and a maintenance backlog that’s $60 million and climbing. “We have to look at ways to make our federal dollars stretch.”

The impacts can be subtle, and they can be far-reaching, too. The core tasks of the outsourced positions might be collecting fees, keeping nighttime quiet, and maintaining restrooms, but the seasonal workers, who often see these jobs as stepping-stones to full-time gigs, have training in firefighting, first aid, and helping keep scavenging bears out of the campgrounds. Some critics wonder whether a here-one-summer-gone-the-next kid making $7.50 an hour will have the same kind of devotion. To make matters tougher, this shift comes at a time when Grand Teton is cutting its rolls of seasonal staff. Last year, the park hired fewer summer workers in its interpretive division, which runs visitor centers and guided hikes, than it did in 2003, and shortened the season of many it did hire. The trend continued in 2005; according to a park spokesperson, Grand Teton limited some seasonal positions and “restructured” other services.

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