Yellowstone National Park gets $40 Million Gift to Build More Employee Housing

Park officials say money will build more than 70 new modular homes for employees

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan

A $40 million private donation will go toward building at least 70 new modular housing units for employees at Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service announced Thursday.

Yellowstone National Park officials said work on the units would begin later this year and that the extra money will help speed up the process of constructing more employee housing at the nation’s oldest national park, which saw its second-busiest season ever last year.

“The gift will be transformational in helping us continue improving employee housing across Yellowstone,” YNP Superintendent Cam Sholly said. “Our thanks to the donors for their generosity and commitment to meet the needs of park employees and to the Park Foundation for its leadership and continued partnership.”

Getting affordable housing for NPS employees close to where they work has been increasingly difficult, the park service said, as property values near many parks have increased and other homes have been turned into short-term rentals. The NPS and National Park Foundation said the $40 million for Yellowstone would go directly to new housing and that the donors wanted to remain anonymous.

2023 report said home values in West Yellowstone and Gardiner were double the national average and that a quarter of park employees earn less than $51,000 a year, while half earned less than $64,000 annually.

In 2020, Yellowstone National Park announced it would spend tens of millions of dollars to replace five-dozen old trailers with modular cabins, improve 150 old housing units and historic homes, and add new housing.

At the time, about half of the park’s 750+ employees lived in park housing, but some in far-reaches of the park. There was also about $500 million in deferred maintenance at the time. The 2022 flood also took out employee housing in several areas of the park.

The 2023 Yellowstone State of the Park report released last March said at the time, the park had spent $30 million on new modular housing units, were set to complete 66 of the new units by 2023, and said 15 other modular housing units to replace trailers would be finished by 2025.

The park shifted to building more modular homes instead of building on-site to save time and money – to the tune of $36 million since 2019, YNP said.

Morgan Warthin, a spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park, said the new housing units will all be located within the park in several areas based on where officials find housing shortfalls, but the exact plans are not yet finalized.

Will Shafroth, the president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said he believed the $40 million gift could be a catalyst for other philanthropy to boost housing at other national parks. Nearly 9,000 of the National Park Service’s 20,000 employees, volunteers and concessionaires live in employee housing, according to the NPS.

The foundation has estimated that housing upgrades and construction at Acadia, Yosemite, and Grand Teton national parks alone would cost more than $115 million for about 200 new units.

“The housing challenges facing each park are unique, and so are the solutions,” said Chuck Sams, the director of the National Park Service. “The ability to recruit and retain a talented workforce remains essential to our ability to protect parks and to ensure a world-class visitor experience.”

There were 325 million visits to national parks in 2023, the NPS said earlier this week, an increase of 13 million from 2022.

Yellowstone saw 4.5 million visits, the second-most on record after 2021, and a 37% increase from 2022, when the park was heavily damaged by flooding and three entrances were closed for more than three months.

The park typically employs around 750 people during the summer between seasonal and full-time employees, and about 3,000 work there year-round. But as Backpacker reported last summer, the park has at times faced challenges hiring, in part because of the increase in visitors and deteriorating infrastructure that includes housing.

Park visits have increased by more than 1 million during the past decade, and wage costs have gone up by about $10 million along with an increase in the cost of building materials, which the NPS says has created a simultaneous need for more employees and a bigger budget for those employees’ wages and housing.

“These skilled, dedicated professionals at the National Park Service who protect our parks and make visitors’ experiences great deserve housing they can be proud to call home,” Shafroth said.

The winter season at Yellowstone is wrapping up in the next two weeks, as roads and visitor services centers will close to prepare for the April 19 planned spring opening for certain roads that are not open year-round.

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.