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Keeping a promise: Yellowstone National Park builds new housing for employees

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Posted at 2:57 PM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 11:16:59-04

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The National Park Service is building new houses in Yellowstone. But these are not just any houses. They fulfill a long overdue promise.

Since his first days on the job, park Superintendent Cam Sholly has vowed to get better housing for park employees. Now it’s happening. The new structures are in the final phase of construction near the administrative area at Mammoth in the northern part of the park. Just the fact that the homes are being built means a lot to people who work in the park.

“When you talk to park employees about what means the most to them for park housing, being able to be in the park and in the resources, it’s one of the top values,” said Park Service employee, Bethany Gassman.

You might be tempted to think, ‘who wouldn’t want to have the famous thermal areas, waterfalls and wildlife right outside your back door?’ But consider the other side of the back door. You would certainly want that to be an entry to somewhere livable. That has not always been the case in Yellowstone.

Gassman said of one of the park houses where she lived, “The heat would run constantly because of a lack of insulation. Inside the building, you could hear little friends creeping around in the walls.”

Sholly asked, “An employee on a $60,000 salary, how are they going to afford a $650,000 house?”

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly is keenly aware of the shortcomings of park employee housing. He said, “I want these team members to really have a comfortable off-duty life and a work-life balance. That’s hard to achieve if you’re living in sub-standard housing.”

Gassman is sympathetic to the realities of park funding. She said a big house isn’t so important. Instead, she said it should be well maintained, have storage space for the outdoor gear her family uses in the park and should have good digital service.

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Since his first days on the job, park Superintendent Cam Sholly has vowed to get better housing for park employees. Now it’s happening.

She said park employees, “They want to be able for kids to do homework it’s really important and for spouses or partners to work remotely.”

Now, that’s all beginning to happen. The new homes are replacing 64 mobile homes from as far back as the 1960s and another 20 modular homes that were too worn out to be refurbished. Plus, the old Laurel dorm near Old Faithful is being remodeled into apartment units. That project is being paid for with Great American Outdoors Act money.

That’s 84 new homes for park workers so far, but it’s only a start. There are 445 housing units in Yellowstone serving about 400 full-time employees and 300 to 500 seasonal workers. Many more need replacing or refurbishing.

Acting Park Service Director Shawn Benge told a U.S. Senate hearing in June, “I think Yellowstone is a great example of where we have invested a significant amount of money over the last three years. And we’re committed to that program of meeting that five-year goal of eliminating poor housing in the Park Service.”

But not all park workers live in the park. Many have homes in so-called “Gateway Communities” like Gardiner and West Yellowstone.

Sholly points out that creates another problem. He said, “20 percent or so are eligible to retire within the next five years.”

Many of those prospective retirees live in those Gateway Community homes. But those house prices have skyrocketed in just the past few years. Zillow shows a tiny one-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Gardiner at $499,000. A 2-bedroom, 2-bath home is listed for $640,000 and a 3-bedroom, two-bath is at $750,000. In West Yellowstone, 3-bedroom, 2-bath homes are shown at $525,000 and $595,000.

Sholly asked, “An employee on a $60,000 salary, how are they going to afford a $650,000 house?”

According to Sholly, that puts even more pressure on the park to develop good housing for employees with nowhere else to go. He said that in order to attract the best employees and to allow those employees to focus on serving Yellowstone’s ever-growing number of visitors, they need to have comfortable housing. Otherwise, he said, they are not likely to stay, or even come to the park in the first place.

Gassman echoed that. She said, “It’s not just a place to hang your hat. It’s a place that you can call home, even if it’s just for six months. It’s comfortable and also it feels like it’s been well kept.”

The work on these new structures is just the start. Also on Sholly’s list is refurbishing the historic housing at the old fort in Mammoth because those structures are also used as places for employees to live.

For an extended interview with Sholly, click here.