Who Runs Glacier? 

With help from Washington, private enterprise tries to tighten its grip on Montana’s national park

Blackfeet tribal member Ed DesRosier didn’t think starting up a new business would be such a hassle.

But DesRosier’s plans to run tribal interpretive tours in Glacier National Park ran into roadblocks—including criminal citations and a run up to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. His foes? The National Park Service and park’s main concessioner, Glacier Park Inc. (GPI), which operates seven hotels in and around Glacier Park and the adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta “It ended up really being a political battle for me,” he says.

The Arizona-based GPI, one of eight concession companies operating in Glacier, also holds the park’s largest contract for food, beverages, retail sales, tours and transportation services. Additional commercial services are provided by other vendors through various park permits.

DesRosier says he decided in the early 1990s that park visitors should be exposed to a more accurate accounting of his tribe’s history and culture than what was being provided by other contractors. He also believed that more tribal members should benefit economically from the park, which forms the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s western boundary and attracts nearly 2 million tourists each year.

“I saw that a lot of visitors were funneled too narrowly into just a few non-Indian businesses,” he says, adding that some non-Indian tour guides historically have told their clients that the Blackfeet avoided the park because they were supposedly afraid of “evil” spirits lurking there.

DesRosier says that contention is hogwash. “There was a lot of bullshit put out,” he says of the contortions of his people’s traditions. “I didn’t think that was a good representation.”

In an attempt to set the record straight, as well as provide jobs for his people, DesRosier says he approached park officials with his guide-service idea. In making his pitch, he relied in part on an 1896 agreement that allows Blackfeet tribal members to “enter into the park unrestricted” and conduct some traditional activities within its borders. The agreement, which followed decades of persecution by non-Indian newcomers, also called for the federal government to pay the Blackfeet Tribe $1.5 million for land that would be included in the park when it was established in 1910. But instead of getting permission to conduct his tours, DesRosier says he was told by the Park Service to talk to GPI.

At GPI, DesRosier contends, “they simply offered me a job as a bus driver” and turned down the cultural tours proposal. He decided that wasn’t good enough.

Instead, DesRosier went to the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, which endorsed his business plan. He also obtained a tribal business license and began operating his Sun Tours company out of East Glacier Park without the blessings of GPI or the Park Service.

After considerable debate, park officials cited the company for illegally operating a concession, and the case went to federal court. The park won the first round, but after DesRosier appealed to the 9th Circuit, the government agreed to dismiss the case and offer Sun Tours a subcontract through GPI’s concession agreement. The business was officially sanctioned by the park in 1993 and now has a year-to-year contract of its own. Today, DesRosier and his employees run two 25-seat tour buses, as well as a 10-person van, in and around the park “as a cultural-historical Blackfeet tour.”

“All of our narration is about the park through the eyes of the Blackfeet, past and present,” he says. “We identify what is unique about it, what is sacred about it, and how the Blackfeet related to it. It’s almost always tied to the Blackfeet.”

Each season federal officials evaluate DesRosier’s business, as they do all other concessioners. The review typically includes ride-alongs on the buses, vehicle inspections, and a review of rates and fares.

“We’ve always gotten very good evaluations,” he says. “They do very good monitoring. We’re proud to get them, and (the inspectors) learn a lot on our trip. We’ve never gotten a bad one.”

Nonetheless, he says, “there’s some indecisiveness there about the future.” Primarily, he adds, it’s because of the short contract length.

“It’s taken awhile for the park to recognize us,” he explains. “It’s only for the past couple years that we’ve been recognized as a legitimate enterprise.”

DesRosier has come to understand Glacier National Park’s somewhat less accommodating side. It’s an aspect of Montana’s premier public tourist attraction that not many know about—one of crumbling infrastructure, complicated business interests, bare-knuckle politics and even below-par labor, health and safety records. Now, an effort is underway in Washington to extend some private concessioners’ contracts well into the 21st century. It’s only the latest chapter in a story with a complex history and a still-uncertain future. To understand it like DesRosier and others do, you have to go back to the beginning.

Taming the Crown Jewel

Glacier National Park was born from conservation and business interests alike. Its founders envisioned a “pleasuring ground” where wildlife and alpine grandeur could be preserved, while visitors could still enjoy at least some of the creature comforts of home. “Scenery is a hollow enjoyment if the tourist starts out after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful sleep on an impossible bed,” said Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.

A primary promoter of park establishment was the Great Northern Railway Co., which also became Glacier’s first concessioner, through its irrepressible leader, Louis W. Hill. The company, which owned the only transcontinental rail line in the United States that ran past a national park, constructed a string of hotels and backcountry chalets that were served by company horses carrying tourists into the roadless park. Hill saw the value of holding a monopoly on visitor services. “Every passenger that goes to national parks ... represents practically a net earning,” Hill told a conference in 1911, the same year an estimated 4,000 people visited Glacier Park.

Glacier’s lodgings, especially the Swiss-style relics that still stand today, were the epitome of rustic elegance. The first hotel, the McDonald Lake Lodge, was initially constructed as a private hunting retreat and was purchased by the Park Service in 1930. Great Northern then completed the 155-room Glacier Park Lodge in Midvale, now known as East Glacier Park, in 1913. The Many Glacier Hotel, a 211-room lodge built on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, was finished in 1914, along with nine rock-and-wood chalets that were sprinkled around the park’s backcountry. In 1927, the majestic Prince of Wales Hotel, where tea is still served every afternoon, was built at the Waterton Lake townsite in Canada. Several smaller hotels, including The Village Inn in Apgar, the Rising Sun Motor Inn near St. Mary, and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn at Many Glacier, were constructed in later years.

As part of the push to develop the Many Glacier Valley, the railroad company also helped punch in major roads, including a gravel artery—later to be called the Going to the Sun Road—which stretched from the railroad town of Belton to the timberline on the west side of the Continental Divide. By 1933, the famous road, still described as an engineering marvel, was opened across Logan Pass. At the dedication ceremony, Blackfeet representative Two Guns White Calf said he thought “all white men were fools” until he saw the road they’d built through Glacier’s seemingly impassable high country.

The Sun Road, of course, was a businessman’s dream. It provided summer access across the center of the park, creating new demand for lodging and services. Visitation, except for a period around World War II when the park was closed, steadily climbed in the years after the road was completed. In the mid-1990s, attendance reached an annual peak of 2.2 million visitors. In 1999, about 1.6 million people visited the park.

Great Northern and its subsidiary, Glacier Park Co., dominated the park’s concession scene until 1957, when management duties were transferred to the Minneapolis-based Knutson Hotel Corp. In 1960, the company sold its holdings to Don Hummel, a former Tucson, Ariz., mayor and founder of Glacier Park Inc.

Hummel, a controversial figure known for ruling the company like a personal fiefdom, repeatedly argued that national parks were created for two reasons—to preserve natural resources for future generations and to make those resources available for the use and enjoyment of people. The main controversy, he reasoned, was over how much development should be allowed and who should provide services for visitors—the government or the private sector, which in the case of Glacier put up millions of dollars to build and maintain the hotels and chalets.

After extended debate about the role of private business in the park system, Congress in 1965 decided that commercial developments in national parks “shall be limited to those that are necessary and appropriate for public use and enjoyment.” Lawmakers also agreed that development must be “consistent to the highest practical degree with the preservation and conservation of the area.”

While that broad mandate has largely withstood the years, burgeoning populations, an increase in disposable income and leisure time, and a corresponding increase in the popularity of parks has created more openings for services, especially in premier destinations such as Glacier and Yellowstone.

Who Owns Glacier?

The perceived greediness of concessioners capitalizing on captive markets did not go entirely unnoticed. It has, in fact, resulted in numerous changes to national park policies, including sweeping reforms made in 1998. The changes, instigated by Wyoming Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, increased franchise fees, eliminated renewal preferences, and shortened the length of contract terms. The legislation also moved contract payments into Park Service budgets, where the money could be used to improve facilities, instead of into the national treasury.

In the case of GPI, however, the 1998 reforms have not yet gone into effect, because the firm’s current contract was signed before the new law was approved, says company president Dale Scott. The GPI contract, signed in 1981, expires at the end of 2005. Over the years, GPI has undergone multiple transformations.

The company was purchased in 1981 by the Greyhound Corp., which later changed its name to Dial Corp. Dial then changed its name to Viad in 1993. Along with GPI, Viad owns: Travelers Express Co., the world’s largest money order processor; Exhibitgroup/Giltspur, the world’s largest designer and producer of exhibits; GES Exposition Services, which creates and manages business trade shows; Brewster Tours, the largest tour operator in the Canadian Rockies; and ProDine, a large-scale food service firm.

In 1999, Viad companies booked $1.6 billion in combined revenues. Although built by private enterprise, the federal government holds titles to all of the hotels that sit on federal land within Glacier, according to park concessions supervisor Jan Knox.

Scott, however, says that GPI technically owns the hotels—except the Lake McDonald Lodge—as well as all hotel furnishings and fixtures, through a “possessory” interest. That interest, he says, is in part based on investments the company has already put into the hotels for repairs and restoration.

Under its contract, GPI must place a portion of its proceeds into an account that is used to finance rehabilitation or construction of in-park facilities. In 1999, GPI reported gross receipts of $11.2 million, which resulted in a $559,110 contribution to the rehab fund. According to park documents, $4,260 was also deposited into another government account in lieu of building-use fees. GPI expends a minimum of 1 percent of its gross proceeds each year on other improvement projects, as well as another 6 percent for general maintenance. According to Scott, GPI has put roughly $1 million a year into improvements since the current contract went into effect.

But Glacier’s unforgiving climate and the wear and tear of years have not been easy on either the Sun Road or the park’s lodges, and concession payments have not been enough to overcome decades of deferred maintenance.

According to some estimates, it could cost $100 million to bring the hotels up to their former grace. Renovation of the Many Glacier Hotel alone, which is considered to be in the worst condition, could cost between $46 million and $69 million, park officials say.

While legislation introduced in late May by Rep. Rick Hill and Sen. Conrad Burns, both Montana Republicans, would allocate up to $200 million to repair the Sun Road and another $20 million for water, sewer and other infrastructure upgrades, the future of the hotels remains in limbo, primarily because no agreement has been reached as to how the repairs should be paid for.

Who’s in Control?

The new legislation is drawing heavy fire from the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), among others, in part because it would potentially extend Glacier’s commercial operating season to six months, create longer terms for the primary concession contract, liberalize rate-setting for rooms, and allow some facilities to be expanded. In order to attract more visitors during the so-called “shoulder” seasons, GPI would also like to create more space for conferences and other meetings within the park’s boundaries.

“People who are in meetings aren’t out hiking,” Scott says in response to criticism from park officials that longer seasons will mean more potential harm to natural resources. “They’re in meetings.”

But more tourists coming to Glacier could also mean higher operating costs for personnel, water and sewer services, and fire response, says the Park Service’s Knox.

“There’s feelings all across the board about whether that’s appropriate,” she says of GPI’s proposal to create more of a resort atmosphere.

Hill, Burns and Scott say the legislative changes are needed, however, because current policies, which limit Glacier’s commercial season to about three and a half months, don’t allow GPI to earn enough revenue to adequately finance sorely needed hotel renovations.

The current situation, Scott says, is “a 100-day season with a 365-day risk clock,” meaning that few financial institutions would be willing to lend the money needed for repair work with the company’s short operating season.

“It’s very difficult to talk to a banker about a 10-year mortgage,” Scott says of the maximum length of time Congress now wants most new concession contracts to run.

But it’s not all about money and private enterprise, Scott contends. In fact, he says, the general public has a primary interest in seeing that historic facilities are not allowed to further disintegrate. If a public-private partnership can be forged to underwrite the needed repairs in Glacier, so much the better, he says, adding that whatever happens, the next hotel contract may not even go to GPI, since it will be up for competitive bid. According to Scott, GPI is prepared to “put up what is necessary” to renovate the hotels, providing the company is given the flexibility to increase revenues to cover the costs.

Other participants in the debate, including some Park Service leaders, suggest that the federal government should simply purchase the hotels, underwrite the renovation work and then hammer out a new concession agreement. Relying on a privately funded fix, they say, gives too much power to companies like GPI. There are also worries that private financing could drive up room costs to the point that most people couldn’t afford Glacier Park lodging, making it an enclave for the rich.

Scott, however, argues that upgrading the top-end hotels, where most summer rooms already cost more than $100 a night, will enable the company to offer even more lower-cost rooms at other facilities, including a new hostel proposed at Many Glacier. Overall, the company would ideally like to add about 370 rooms across the park, among other improvements.

“We plan to have a complete inventory of pricing,” he says. “We never intended these to be an elitist environment where the average American couldn’t afford them.”

Hill and Burns contend their bills will not put mandates on park officials, but will instead give them more options to clear up their maintenance backlog and bring the hotels up to snuff.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus is expected to add his own bill to the mix later this month.

Another part of the new legislation deals with tax credits. Under current law, Scott says, companies that renovate buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the case with several of Glacier’s hotels, can be eligible for credits totaling 20 percent of capital costs. The only catch, however, is that a minimum 39.5-year contract must be in place for the credits to apply.

A 40-year contract, which GPI would like to pursue when its current agreement expires, would make a concessioner eligible for the credit, he says. But others, like Tony Jewett, the conservation group’s Helena-based regional director, say the new legislation amounts to a sweetheart deal for GPI, in part because it positions the company for a contract stretching until 2046. The bills, which are identical in the House and Senate, also attempt to skirt past concessioner reforms by labeling Glacier Park as a “demonstration project,” he says.

“The construct and the directives are there so when it’s tightened up, it goes in a certain direction,” Jewett says. “This bill is designed and crafted by GPI to maintain its anchor in the park on its own terms. GPI shouldn’t be dictating the terms.”

Jewett says his organization fully favors restoring the park’s historic buildings, but he questions why GPI hasn’t been required to put more of its profits toward repairs. He also contends that renovation plans should be based on what the public and Park Service deem necessary. Those needs, he adds, should be determined through a comprehensive assessment, not by the desires of a concessioner.

“It’s a worthy goal and a suspect solution,” Jewett says of the proposals endorsed by Hill and Burns.

Jewett also notes that the new legislation directly contradicts several components of Glacier’s new 20-year park management plan. The plan, adopted last year after extensive public review, recommends that the number of rooms, room rates, and season lengths be held steady, at least until a commercial services study can be completed.

But Knox, the Park Service’s concession manager, says completion of the study has been delayed because of funding shortfalls, prompting more uncertainly about the future.

“Until we find some money,” she says, “we’re kind of in limbo.”

Good Neighbor or Bad Actor?

Jewett, among others, says he’s not sure GPI can handle a longer season, especially considering its ongoing troubles managing what it already has.

“This is not a concessioner that’s done a bang-up job of providing services,” Jewett contends. “They very clearly have not provided the services they need to provide at the level expected at a national park.”

In 1991, the year before Scott took over as the company’s president, GPI received an especially dismal annual review from park officials, who cited, among other issues, continuing problems with employee morale and housing, visitor complaints, lack of appropriate training and oversight, and an overall poor public image. The company at that time received an “unsatisfactory” rating for contract compliance and a “marginal” rating for “operational performance.” The overall review for 1991 was also ranked as marginal.

“It has become apparent after six seasons of observation and interaction with GPI that further progress is not possible within this operation given current management attitude, emphasis and leadership,” the report states. “Changes made in the operation and the progress made to date were frequently, though not always, attributable to pressures, suggestions, evaluations, or requirements imposed by the park on the concessioner. This is not satisfactory for the operation of this concession, nor is it an appropriate role for the park to be playing in this contract.”

In subsequent years, the company’s performance improved in many areas, but the park’s 1999 review indicates continuing problems with health and safety issues, employee training and managerial oversight, among other issues. In particular, the government’s 1999 report says GPI was late with six of its capital improvement payments, improperly charged the public for use of some meeting rooms, failed to repair some hotel fire alarm systems “in a timely manner,” and continued to violate sanitation codes in some of its kitchens.

“The food sanitation program appears to focus on anticipating when and where inspections will be conducted and then attempting to prepare facilities at that time,” the report says. “Little or no effort appears to be expended on improving knowledge and skills of food employees with regard to proper food handling and sanitation practices.” These and other problems prompted the Park Service to again issue marginal ratings for contract compliance and operational performance. Last year’s overall review was also listed as marginal.

GPI unsuccessfully appealed the 1999 rating to the agency’s regional office in Denver. Scott maintains the poor review “was a blip on the radar screen.”

“I don’t think it was totally fair,” he says. “There was not a lot of communication between us and the Park Service, and we didn’t know about the problems until last September.”

“I’m not saying we’re without fault,” he adds. “I just think it could have been handled better.”

Knox, who monitors the company’s operations, says some improvements have been made, and others, as in past years, are promised. “GPI has been responsive in addressing those issues,” she says. “We thought they were below satisfactory in 1999. Going through this summer will show how well they perform and how they address those areas.”

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