As winter fades to bright green spring in northwest Montana, three men are hitting the pavement in the towns of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, shaking hands at local businesses and visiting Rotary Clubs like politicians on the campaign trail. The comparison isn’t far off: the men are the new faces of Glacier National Park, and they’re eager to build relationships with the surrounding communities.
Among them are new park superintendent Jeff Mow and the CEO of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Mark Preiss, who’s arrived with a plan to triple his organization’s annual giving. The most-discussed newcomer, however, is Xanterra, the giant concessionaire owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz. Last fall, the National Park Service ended a long-standing relationship with former concessionaire Glacier Park, Inc. (GPI) – which has been part of Glacier since the park’s inception in 1910 – and granted Xanterra a 16-year contract to operate Glacier’s lodges, dining establishments and fleet of red busses.
Critics of the decision dismiss Xanterra’s arrival as a Walmart-esque takeover – another example of a national corporation monopolizing its industry and giving a local business the boot. But though Xanterra’s presence in town hasn’t been without controversy (and its first season hasn’t yet begun), the company has thus far proven a good neighbor. The third member of the trio is former GPI employee Marc Ducharme, who’s been hired to manage Xanterra’s operations in the park. Other GPI employees have also been put into high-ranking positions. And with GPI maintaining a presence at several private lodges, the new deal may ultimately mean more jobs for the region.
“It all seems really healthy to me,” says Rhonda Fitzgerald, owner of the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish and a member of the state tourism council. Fitzgerald also hopes Xanterra will bring its stellar environmental record to the region: In Yellowstone (where the concessionaire last year won a 20-year extension of its contract), Xanterra has implemented a recycling program in nearby towns and buys local produce for its restaurants. “They’ve really walked the walk,” Fitzgerald says.