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Yellowstone superintendent talks about park’s new strategic priorities

Posted at 3:34 PM, May 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-22 18:08:41-04

Yellowstone National Park is adopting a new set of priorities for managing the oldest and most iconic of the nation’s parks. The new plan encompasses just about every part of Yellowstone.

It comes from new Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. Sholly became the superintendent at Yellowstone back in October. It’s not unusual for a new leader to set goals and aspirations for his team, but this list, that he calls “Strategic Priorities,” is meant to be a guidepost for all decisions, both short term and long term, in the park.

“How we communicate, how we share resources across divisions, is extremely important to our success,” said Sholly.

The new park priorities start with better housing for park employees; the next item is to strengthen the ecosystem and protect the history. After that, make the visitor experience world class. Then, invest in infrastructure, and the fifth priority is to build coalitions. But Sholly says there’s a good reason why park employees come first.

“We can talk all day long about protecting the resources in this park, managing visitor use, partnering with communities, but if the core team in this park isn’t well taken care of, we cannot accomplish as efficiently as we should many of those other priorities that we want to execute on,” he said.

According to Sholly, that means replacing manufactured homes, more than forty years old, used for employee housing.  A particularly rough example, with insulation torn away from the base, dented metal, and peeling paint sits in the employee housing area just south of Mammoth. It was used through 2018. Park officials say they hope it never has to be used again.

Sholly has a new idea for improving housing both for park and concession employees.

“We might be able to do some joint housing outside of the boundaries, perhaps with cooperative agreements where maybe developers come in,” he said, suggesting that the park might be able to rent such facilities.

It’s all a way to deal with what Sholly estimates is more than $600 million in infrastructure needs. He said he thinks it is quite a bit more than $600 million but doesn’t have an exact figure yet.  His predecessor, Dan Wenk, put the figure at a cool billion dollars.

Sholly commends the primary concessionaire, Xanterra, for major remodeling work across the park, like the firm’s current project, a major remodel of the Mammoth Hotel while preserving the historic nature of the old structure.

The park has its own historical structures to consider. These include buildings from the old military fort at Mammoth. Many of those buildings show obvious signs of wear such as peeling paint.

Sholly said, “Our inability to put the right level of investment into those structures prohibits us from meeting our mission mandate of preserving cultural and historical resources.

Sholly says the success of Yellowstone is built on strong partnerships. One of the most well known of those partnerships is with Yellowstone Forever. One of its headquarters buildings and a store is in Gardiner, just across the street from Yellowstone National Park. Sholly says that he would like to build on that partnership and others like it. The money that Yellowstone Forever raises is often used for infrastructure projects within the park.

Following are the official strategic priorities for Yellowstone National Park, as defined by the National Park Service:

  1. Focus on the Core: Success in this priority is central to Yellowstone’s future and revolves around improving the working and living conditions of the Yellowstone team, how the park manages its financial resources, and how it works toward the best administrative and operational framework. An example of a specific action under this priority includes the development of a 5-year plan to substantially improve employee housing within the park. The multi-million dollar plan will work to improve existing housing, eliminate and replace 75 trailers currently used for seasonal employees, and will explore new housing partnership opportunities with gateway communities and partners.
  2. Strengthen the Ecosystem and Heritage Resources: This priority focuses on understanding and responding to the effects of climate change, promoting large landscape and wildlife conservation efforts, and protecting and improving the condition of Yellowstone’s vast cultural and historic resources. Specific actions under this priority are being developed in a range of key areas including: a  bison management strategy that stabilizes and potentially expands the quarantine program; working with states to protect and facilitate important wildlife migration corridors; and expanding efforts to combat the impacts of non-native species like lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
  3. Deliver a World Class Visitor Experience: This priority aims to provide clarity and direction around how the park will handle increased visitation in upcoming years – with special focus on visitor impacts on resources, staffing and infrastructure, visitor experience, and gateway communities. Importantly, the park is moving out of the data gathering phase and beginning to determine the appropriate short and long-term actions necessary to protect resources, mitigate impacts of congestion, and improve educational, recreational, and other visitor enjoyment opportunities. This priority also focuses heavily on improving public safety and resource protection.
  4. Invest in Infrastructure: The park’s maintenance backlog exceeds half a billion and is likely much higher. Actions within this priority include: developing a more cogent deferred maintenance reduction plan, improving the quality of data and prioritization processes, and taking better advantage of current and future funding to improve asset conditions and protect investments.
  5. Build Coalitions and Partnerships: Yellowstone’s success is predicated on strong partnerships and coalitions. The park will continue to build and align priorities with many partners including Yellowstone Forever and our incredibly generous philanthropic community, with tribes, elected officials, environmental and conservation groups, concessioners, and communities, states, and other federal cooperators.

Reporting by John Sherer for MTN News