Despite a critical report, national parks should freely use their equipment and facilities — from boats to aircraft and cabins — to host and educate influential officials, former Yellowstone Superintendent Michael Finley says.
By hosting President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Yellowstone, Finley was able to promote significant conservation measures, he said. Gingrich and Clinton had oversight responsibility for national parks, Finley said, and hosting them was “just smart business.”
That kind of business will cease at the rustic Brinkerhoff Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, where the National Park Service will allow only government employees on “official travel,” NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis wrote. Jarvis made his declaration in response to an investigation that said Grand Teton officials violated a policy when they allowed VIPs to vacation and party at the lodge.
“It’s been my experience that people in important positions in government that can assist with Park Service appropriations often don’t have first-hand experience or knowledge,” said Finley, who was Yellowstone superintendent for 7 years ending in 2001. “I was very fortunate over my career to be able to coax members of Congress in the park at various times.
“I have seen laws change, attitudes change,” as a result of such trips, he said. “There’s no better education in the world than seeing, hearing and touching.”
In the case of President Clinton, Finley twice flew him over Yellowstone during the debate over whether a gold mine should be allowed just outside its border.
“One thing that came out of that flight over the New World Mine is Clinton said ‘We are going to protect Yellowstone,’” Finley recounted. The former superintendent, who is president and treasurer of the Turner Foundation, would have done more for Clinton.
“If it were in his travel itinerary, I would have put him in a backcountry cabin so he understands what wilderness is,” Finley said.
In the case of Gingrich, Finley invited him to Yellowstone at the request of former U.S. Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) while the former speaker was campaigning in Wyoming.
“My wife and I spent the weekend with them,” Finley said of Gingrich and his wife. “We toured the park. I showed him the resources. We discussed maintenance. We discussed fees.”
The Park Service had instituted a new fee system that allowed Yellowstone to keep some of the money it generated, but not all. Finley grumbled to Gingrich who responded, saying “We make the rules and we can change the rules.”
“He went back and changed the fee system.”
Parks are places where political leaders can refresh themselves and learn about conservation issues, said David Barna, former NPS spokesman and a member of the Coalition to protect America’s National Parks.
“The National Parks can provide a quiet place for VIPs to think about important issues,” he said. “Ultimately, the parks are probably better off financially because of these retreats.”
Parks shouldn’t misuse their facilities, Finley agreed. But entertaining and informing in Yellowstone were his duties.
“If I went to Washington D.C. I would get five to 15 minutes in an office and that would be it,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to erect barriers and make it harder for people who have oversight responsibility to understand park issues.”
New rules for Brinkerhoff Lodge coming
Oversight or not, from now on VIPs won’t be staying at the Brinkerhoff unless they are “on official travel with an appropriate travel authorization,” Jarvis wrote. Jarvis himself spent four nights vacationing at the Brinkerhoff in 2012, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General said in its investigation “Operation and Management of the Brinkerhoff Lodge at Grand Teton National Park.”
Released last week, the 44-page report followed a story by Time magazine about Vice President Joe Biden’s family vacation at the Brinkerhoff in 2014. Two years after Jarvis’ stay, and after a flap caused by the Time story, Jarvis paid $772 for his vacation lodging.
Park Service Officials won’t say whether they’re disciplining current or former employees who broke a 1992 policy limited use of the four-bedroom retreat to federal employees on official duty. Many of the guests did not meet that requirement, the report said. “Personnel actions are confidential, as required by federal law,” spokeswoman April Slayton said in an email.
The report said the 1992 policy “is not only going unenforced, it has been relaxed over the years.” The investigation sought to determine “whether the U.S. Government is owed money.” As a result of the probe, the Park Service recouped $7,143 but listed another $28,875 as unpaid.
One official, Craig Crutchfield, actually paid for two nights’ stay in advance. He is chief of the interior branch of the Office of Management and Budget.
The agency won’t try to collect more from visitors, Slayton said. “At this time, the Park Service does not plan to issue bills to any other past visitors,” she wrote.
Records were so shoddy regarding who stayed at the Brinkerhoff Lodge that a planned review of 10 years of use had to be cut to four, the report said. During the 4-year review period, 84 percent of the individual overnight stays — 186 of 222 — were not paid. Although the investigation listed $28,875 in unpaid use, the report based that value on the federal business allowance for a one-room hotel room in Jackson Hole.
That per diem rate used in the report averaged $198 a night. In calculating what was owed the park service, investigators applied that one-room rate to the entire four-bedroom lodge.
It is also possible to calculate the free-market value of a night’s stay at the Brinkerhoff based on comparable per-bedroom rates at other lodges. Using the report’s per-bedroom figures from five comparable properties (Jackson Lake Lodge, The Alpenhof Lodge, Spring Creek Ranch, The Wort Hotel, Snow King Hotel) WyoFile calculated the four-bedroom lodge could rent for $1,432. That would put unpaid use over four years at $266,352.
While the probe won’t recoup that money, the report nevertheless opens a window into a place where the privileged, connected and invited came to mingle, vacation and party in a setting adorned with museum-quality Western Molesworth furniture. Some were on official business, some on vacation, some were invited, some paid, but most did not. The report catalogs overnight stays as well as day use by nonprofit groups that hosted retreats, “donor cultivation,” and parties.
The report listed overnight guests according to whether they were on official business, were invited or were vacationing. Some guests were given a briefing about the park in an attempt to justify use of the lodge. Even when officials stayed at the lodge while on business, the Park Service should have been paid but usually wasn’t, the report shows.
A variety of groups used of the lodge for daytime or evening gatherings, including the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and other conservation and education groups. One 14-guest dinner last fall honored the retiring director of the Jackson Hole Airport.
Jarvis said the Park Service will tighten rules for that use. “The policy will also clarify that day use of the Brinkerhoff may occur to support park-authorized trainings, meetings, or events, which may include non-federal employees,” he wrote.
The report was completed at a time when the Park Service itself complains about inadequate funding and an $11.5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.
Reforms will be lasting this time, spokeswoman Slayton said. “NPS has committed to developing new standard operating procedures for the lodge to assure that staff understand and remain in compliance with policy,” she wrote. “Review and approval of those procedures has been elevated after the investigation.”