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Donor gives $40 million for Yellowstone National Park employee housing

Yellowstone National Park employee housing that opened in 2022 under construction
NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Yellowstone National Park employee housing that opened in 2022 under construction

An anonymous donor has given Yellowstone National Park $40 million. But it's not to preserve nature or wildlife, it's to build housing that park staff can afford to live in.

More than 3,000 people work in the park during peak tourist season, and for years now, finding enough housing for them has been a problem.

"I can count at least five critical positions where we've tried to recruit, but we got turned down by the applicant because of a lack of housing," said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.

Yellowstone has long relied on neighboring towns to house about half of its staff. But affordable rentals have become scarcer as park visitation reaches record highs. Landlords have a lot of incentive to convert long-term rentals into nightly ones.

And buying a place near the park is even more challenging.

On a recent winter off-season drive around around downtown Gardiner, Montana, a town of around 900 that guards the north entrance to Yellowstone, Caroline Gold and I see more elk than cars. She points out a house with a "for sale" sign out front.

"It's an orange house with a kind of stone front," Gold says. "It's got a chain link fence around it."

She guesses it's price at, "probably close to a million. I think anything in Gardner is, yeah, $800,000 to a million."

I pull up the listing: About $900,000. According toa 2023 park report, homes in gateway towns run about double the national average—closer to prices in Seattle or Denver than rural Montana. At the same time, vacation rentals have eaten up the local housing supply.

Gold took a job at Yellowstone in 2021, what she thought was a dream archaeology position.

She put in her notice where she was working in Texas, and then started looking for a place to live. She immediately regretted her decision.

"Am I going to have to un-resign from my job because there's no housing here?" she asked herself.

Gold hustled for a couple of years to find and keep adequate housing and then took a new job out east at another national park, where cost of living is substantially less and the possibility of finding a long-term home looks better.

But lots of parks, from Acadia to Yosemite, face difficult affordable housing challenges.

The $40 million gift to Yellowstone was made through the National Park Foundation, and will build about 70 units inside the park. Foundation CEO Will Shafroth said he hopes it will spur more philanthropy at other national parks.

"These people are public servants, and they deserve a great place to come home to and call home," Shafroth said.

Around Yellowstone, great places to call home keep getting pushed further and further away. Building more housing inside the park helps, but only if it's close enough to schools for park employees' kids, and jobs for spouses. Places like Gardiner, Montana.

"Nothing has ever felt as much as home as Gardiner," said Ashea Mills, a self-employed Yellowstone guide who's advocated for years for affordable housing here.

Mills says, beyond park employees, the teachers, carpenters, cooks, babysitters, and more that keep both the park and gateway towns afloat need to be able to find both home and community. For nearly 30 years, Mills found that here.

But she says the skyrocketing cost of living has changed Gardiner's character. It pushed out families and workers, and with them, the tight-knit, caring community she'd fallen for. So in 2022, she moved an hour north, to the larger town of Livingston.

"The decision to pick up and actually, like, move my bed has been one of the greatest heartbreaks of my life," she said. "Incredibly difficult, because of how place-based our lives are."

Solving the area's housing crisis, Mills says, requires preserving community here. And that means systemic action. Local attempts at zoning and regulation that could, say, limit vacation rentals, have gone nowhere so far.

But, she said, "There's always hope. There's always hope."

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.