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$40 million will help Yellowstone National Park address a lack of employee housing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An anonymous donor just gave Yellowstone National Park $40 million. But it is not to preserve nature or wildlife. It is to build affordable housing for park staff. Montana Public Radio's Nick Mott has this report.

NICK MOTT, BYLINE: More than 3,000 people work in Yellowstone during peak tourist season, and for years now, finding enough housing for them has been a problem. Cam Sholly is superintendent of the park.

CAM SHOLLY: 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.

MOTT: 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. Buying a place near the park is even more challenging. Caroline Gold and I are driving around downtown Gardiner, Mont., a town of around 900 that guards the north entrance to Yellowstone. It's winter, the off-season, and we see more elk than other cars.

CAROLINE GOLD: It's an orange house with a kind of stone front. It's got a chain-link fence around it.

MOTT: We drive by a home with a for sale sign out front.

What would you expect that it's going for?

GOLD: Probably close to a million. I think anything in Gardiner is - yeah, 800,000 to a million.

MOTT: I pull up the listing - about $900,000. According to a 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.

GOLD: Am I going to have to resign from my job because there's no housing here?

MOTT: She 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.

WILL SHAFROTH: These people are public servants, and they deserve a great place to come home to and call home. That's just becoming less and less the case.

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

ASHEA MILLS: Nothing has ever felt as much as home as Gardiner.

MOTT: Ashea Mills is a self-employed Yellowstone guide who's advocated for years for affordable housing here. She 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 tightknit, caring community she'd fallen for. So in 2022, she moved an hour north to the larger town of Livingston.

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

MOTT: 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 still...

MILLS: There's always hope. There's always hope.

MOTT: For NPR News, I'm Nick Mott in Gardiner, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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