Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
by Jim Macdonald
In looking at the relationship between private interests and Yellowstone National Park, let us consider two stories that have come out in the past week in addition to one we have already looked at in relation to employee housing in Big Sky. The first came out this past weekend and was syndicated widely by the Associated Press, entitled National parks increasingly looking for private funds, while the second came out yesterday, by the Billings Gazette's Mike Stark, entitled High costs stall Yellowstone projects. All of these stories by themselves are separate, but together they suggest a bleak view of what may happen in Yellowstone.
In the story related to Big Sky, a couple has filed a complaint about housing employees in a motel where rooms will also be sold to tourists visiting this Gallatin Mountains resort area. They have objected on the grounds that property values will be diminished by doing so.
In the Associated Press article, National Park Service (NPS) director Mary Bomar has said that the NPS is currently bringing in 12 percent of its current budget from private sources and is actually seeking more private funding citing "shrinking staff, aging facilities and a diminished visitor experience."
Finally, in the Billings Gazette piece, Mike Stark notes that many current projects, including a new visitor's center at Old Faithful, improvements to the Old Faithful Inn, and a critical new wastewater management plant near Madison Junction are on hold because bids on contracts have come in significantly over the amount budgeted for them. The reason cited in the article for the high construction costs are a tight labor market as well as a booming construction market outside of Yellowstone.
I'm not sure I have to do much to connect the dots of these pieces. The booming value of property in and the development of places like Big Sky and other areas near Yellowstone has created both a labor shortage but more importantly a high price tag on the cost of construction. That cost of construction has set the market for Yellowstone. And, one can only surmise that if the price is paid for these projects, critical among them the wastewater management plant to replace one that has risked major failure at "any time" for several years, that the National Park Service will look for an increasing share of money from private sources in order to fund the projects.
This particular inter-relationship is perhaps worse than that. Private money just outside of Yellowstone National Park has driven up the cost that private money will now pay for inside of Yellowstone, which, while improving services, will at the same time further raise the price of property, and therefore further NPS dependence on finding more private money to pay for future improvements. The ultimate result if allowed to be taken to its logical extreme is the privatization of the NPS and a transfer of ownership of the lands from the public domain to the highest bidder. Scott Silver has actually argued that this has been NPS policy since the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Obviously, I don't think that privatization is a good thing. Increasing privatization probably will produce higher access and user fees because the interest of private enterprise is to make a profit, and the wealthy interests outside the park who own property want to see their property values increase. Those values are most likely to increase in Yellowstone where the view is most unspoiled, which is exactly the reason that the residents in Big Sky do not want to see their workers living anywhere near their economic assets. As visitor services become more expensive to maintain, one can only imagine that the cost to use those services will increase. This is exactly what has happened in the Global South under World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs. Privatization leads to higher prices, and higher user fees are justified as sound policy. Yet, apart from the cost of privatization, the real scandal is that ownership of public land will officially transfer from the nominal control of you and me to control by the private industries that foot the bills. Now, while it is true that you and I actually have no say in the governance of Yellowstone, there is at least some value in the myth of such control because it suggests that people believe that Yellowstone is better unowned by this or that person as opposed to ownership by all. We have seen in previous essays, such as this one, that Yellowstone has always in some sense been a joint venture between a public industry that was in the hip pocket of the wealthy and particular private ventures that hoped to monopolize access to "public" resources, but this is certainly a step worse.
Perhaps, people are not concerned about the transfer of ownership from public to private control just so long as Yellowstone is protected, whatever that means. The high price tag of projects in Yellowstone, like bombing and shelling the East Entrance for snowmobilers, road maintenance, law enforcement, wildlife management, and a whole host of visitor services may produce a Yellowstone that is so valuable to humans with the means to control the resources that it might not be viable in the long run to expect public ownership, even in the nominal way it currently exists. Public ownership cannot cope with these dynamics, especially when you figure that public funds for Yellowstone must already compete with the devouring sinkhole of money given to the private/public partnership known as the military industrial complex. So long as the expectation for Yellowstone is to provide a particular kind of access to a particular kind of person, then only a particular kind of service will do, and that will cost a lot of money that in the capitalist's world will only be found by a rich person who may only protect Yellowstone in so far as it protects the value of his property and his own view of the geysers. Besides, any meddling leads businesses to shut down.
Again, like so many issues related to capitalism in Yellowstone, this is an issue whose ecosystem isn't closed by the boundaries of the park or even by "Greater Yellowstone." This is an issue that relates to all our choices as a society. These three stories about Yellowstone connect to much more than themselves. The linchpin seems to be that Yellowstone is valued in a particular way by a particular group of people who may have the power and means to make that happen regardless of what you or I think about that. They build their power based on our quiet assent to the economic system in place. It is taken as a given, for instance, that high property values are a good thing. It is taken as a given that visitor centers and historic hotels should be as grand as possible. It is taken for granted that Yellowstone should serve enough people so that all our feces is manageable. Some of these things may or may not be true, but they should not be taken for granted. I believe some of these things we take for granted are certainly false and contribute to injustices in the world everywhere.
What we seemed left with is a vicious circle of privatization that will make Yellowstone even more exclusive than it already is; what exactly is the alternative, and how can the alternative come to be? While I doubt there is one or should be one answer to that question, I think the first step always is to renounce any ownership or privilege we think we have over land and resources, including Yellowstone, including my own love of Yellowstone. Nothing belongs to any of us. We need to use things in order to survive, but we are entitled to none of it, not the view, not the Inn, not a wage to work in paradise, none of it. Having said that, I can renounce everything and such a world will still not happen. The meantime is left for us to work against the forces that make this renunciation not yet possible. It is left for environmentalists to stand up for voiceless animals, plants, land, and water. It is for workers to stand with each other against the businesses who profit from their labor. It's for people who care to do anything possible to lower the value of property while at the same time not devaluing society's most oppressed. And, in respect to Mary Bomar, those who can influence the government should force it to say no to further privatization. In respect to Big Sky, those who care should work to let the workers stay in the motel. In respect to Yellowstone's projects, work to stop any project that comes at the expense of further privatization. In tandem, this can begin to make a dent where we can renounce our privilege and sense of entitlement to this much abused though still magical land. Of course, I see the same thing in the gentrification of my Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and that for the time being is where I must turn my own attention.
For more on Jim, see The Magic of Yellowstone and recent essays on his blog, Jim's Eclectic World.