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.
Yet like most big companies, Xanterra comes with some caveats. It’s the biggest national park concessionaire in the country, with 11 major concessions from the Grand Canyon to Crater Lake, as well as a handful of resorts, cruises and adventure travel outfits. Some employees have nicknamed the company Xanterrible, complaining of low wages and poor living conditions. But more grievous for northwest Montanans is that Xanterra is a subsidiary of Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which until last year was drilling fracking wells on the eastern edge of the park.
“It is unconscionable that the National Park Service would give such a coveted contract to Phil Anschutz,” wrote Helena activist Bob Brigham in an online petition that sought last year to prevent the contract from going to Xanterra unless Anschutz Corp. agreed to stop fracking the park’s boundaries. The petition garnered more than 5,700 signatures, and today the fracking has largely ceased. (Whether local opposition or a dearth of oil is to thank/blame is debatable.)
Now that Anschutz is no longer drilling nearby, that controversy has largely died down. Xanterra is making “a huge investment in the community” of Columbia Falls by renovating buildings and setting its headquarters there, says Michael Jamison, Glacier program manager for the National Park Conservation Association. It’s also investing in Glacier’s notoriously old infrastructure by replacing outdated furnishings, remodeling rooms and improving food and beverage services, as stipulated in its contract. Similarly, Xanterra’s new Yellowstone contract requires it to spend $134 million on facilities improvements there by 2018.
As national parks across the West deal with the shrinking budgets and massive maintenance backlogs of recent years, mega-concessionaires like Xanterra may be increasingly necessary for parks to stay solvent. “(Anschutz) is possibly one of the few able to afford the initial investment of $33 million required to take on Glacier’s crumbling infrastructure,” the New York Times noted during the bidding process. Plus, Xanterra’s deep pockets mean it can offer more money to the Park Service: The Yellowstone deal ups Xanterra’s franchise fees from 2.5 percent to 4.5 percent of its revenues.
People love to hate big corporations swooping in and changing the character of a beloved place, but the reality is more complex. In 2007, for example, a corporate group bought the local ski hill and changed its name to Whitefish Mountain Resort. Skiers were prepared to hate the new owners, but few today would argue that the mountain has sold out. Most dig the changes: the lifts are faster, duct tape is still in fashion and the price of beer has stayed cheap.
At the same time, it’s hard not to grieve for the loss of a company that’s been with Glacier since the park first opened. “I think when you lose GPI you do lose a sense of place,” Jamison says. “They’ve been there for a hundred years, understood the culture of this park … They were able to be responsive in a way that only a local could.”
Hopefully, he adds, residents will be able to say the same of Xanterra in a hundred years. But right now it’s too soon to tell.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.