COVID-19, Yellowstone, and the Company that puts the American Public at Risk: An Open Letter
Dear Concerned Citizen,
On February 17, 2020, on a -16 degree morning, in the remote town of West Yellowstone, winter snow guides took to the frozen streets to shed light on issues that had yet to find their way into the national spotlight. In doing so, they sparked a fiery local debate about how winter use and pandemic response is managed in Yellowstone National Park.
The subsequent firing of six guides by Yellow Stone Vacation Tours for exercising their First Amendment rights and the ensuing 11 federal charges by the National Labor Board against parent company, Delaware North, only added labor-based fuel to a public lands fire.
Delaware North is no stranger to public lands malfeasance and dubious undertakings. A few years prior, Delaware North trademarked the sacred names of the Awhanee Hotel, Curry Village, and even Yosemite National Park itself. They held these names ransom for an abhorrent $51 million. The American public eventually paid just under $4 million and Aramark footed millions more for these naming rights back. The Buffalo, New York-based corporation subsequently turned their sights on the naive gateway communities of Yellowstone National Park. Their acquisition of properties around Yellowstone began in 2009 with the purchase of the Holiday Inn West Yellowstone. Next came Buffalo Bus in 2016, a guiding company that also held the highly coveted and valuable winter over snow contracts to take guests into the park in the winter. In a couple of short years, they would use the public’s money, ransom from Yosemite, to buy out the Yellowstone Park Hotel, Grey Wolf Hotel, Explorer Cabins, Two Top Snowmobiles, the Best Western operating contracts out of Gardiner, and a hotel in Cody, Wyoming.
Winter access to the historic Yellowstone National Park is tightly controlled. The public is permitted to enter only on snowmobiles and snow coaches. Once within the park, you can explore on Nordic skis, snow coach tours and snowmobiles. Winter snow guides, also known as “oversnow guides” are key as they lead tours, drive coaches and are often the primary face of the park to visitors.
The conflict associated with over snow access in Yellowstone is hardly anything novel. Winter operations in Yellowstone began as far back as the 1950’s when a couple of renegade businessmen decided to take guests on Bombardier snow coaches into the park. From the 50’s through the 1990’s, snowmobiles entered unregulated into the park, bringing with them vast amounts of pollutants, noise, and fatalities. In 2014, the game changed when one-year contracts were transitioned to ten-year contracts awarded to a handful of family run companies.
Delaware North realized the value of access and began acquiring companies one by one – this decreased or eliminated access for other snow guides. Last year, Delaware North bought out Two Top snowmobiles, and so Alpen Guides lost operational capacity for some of their snow coaches operating under a subcontract of Two Top. Some of the guides were forced to work for Delaware North’s Yellowstone Vacation Tours and Two Top Snowmobile companies.
The 2019-20 winter season started just as many of those prior. Guides from the various family-run companies met, mask free, in December in the Old Faithful Visitor center for the annual guide refresher. For the first time in history, many of the newer guides for Delaware North corporation had become guides without ever showing proficiency to drive over snow. Many had never even been inside of the park. This would become crucial when the important conversations about risk and coronavirus would creep into the fold later in the season.
All companies take international tourists into the park, but the demographic varies by company. All told, the number of tourists from mainland China being brought into the park by Yellowstone Vacation Tours, Xanterra, and all companies in December through late January is estimated to be between 150-200 guests per day. Many of them enter on crowded 35-person capacity buses, and some can ride in on snowmobiles. Yellowstone Vacation Tours and Delaware North subsidiaries comprise by far the largest percentage of international tourists entering through West Yellowstone. Their marketing targets international tourists more than any other concessionaire. This year, with COVID 19 sweeping the world, the concern was evident on passengers’ faces when they realized the nature of the closed-up coaches.
These guests were talking about a virus in Wuhan, rating the situation as “very serious.” As guides, grasping the severity of a situation half a world away was not easy, but they spoke with a such a sense of angst and tension, it was impossible to ignore. Many of our guests from China wear masks as a societal norm, regardless of whether or not a pandemic is taking place but as the season progressed it became more and more difficult to ignore their concerns. C-Tours is another company whose clientele mainly consists of individuals from mainland China, and contracts with Delaware North to take their guests into the park. One such individual asked for a refund in late January, but she was denied by the company. The entire online Yelp review is quite telling:
“Booked a 7-day LV trip with CTour Holiday for my parents who don’t speak English. The trip starts on 1/25/2020. However, the outburst of Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) killed 82 people, infected nearly a thousand, and potentially infected several thousands in China by the time the trip started.
Because the tourists of CTour Holiday mostly come from China, it is possible that some are potential carriers. On 1/24, China banned all touring groups in the mainland to prevent spreading the deadly virus, but CTour Holiday continue [sic] their services, organizing trips for Chinese tourists, mostly in population dense areas in the US.
I called the office, tried to cancel or reschedule the trip. The answer was no cancellation = 0% refund. I would agree if this was the good old days. But now the coronavirus is widely spreading and sickening people. The only two conditions that CTour Holiday agrees on a refund are either you directly come from Wuhan, or you are a doctor who needs to treat patients in China. As a matter of fact, it could take 1-14 days for an infected person to develop any symptoms. Tourists on the bus could be potential carriers. The warm, cozy bus can be a natural incubator for virus propagation.
Expressing my concerns to their office results in cold responses like ‘You could wear a mask’, ‘you are overreacting’. First, masks are out of stock from Amazon or local CVS stores in SF. Second, it is really not overreacting as you can read here for the recent updates nytimes.com/2020/01/27/w…
In the end, I got 0% [sic] refund. I believe there are other travelers who are facing the same problem. Money is one thing, but raising public health concerns is another. Hope [sic] I knew other ways to file complaints.” https://www.yelp.com/biz/ctour-holiday-monrovia
To further complicate matters, there was an outbreak of a gastrointestinal illness at the Snow Lodge among Xanterra employees in early January. More than 20 employees were quarantined and it still remains unpublished. Guests were also infected; some were even sent to the ICU after being taken by ambulance in the middle of their trip. Again, no reports were ever made as to the cause of the gastrointestinal issues, and these individuals were never tested for COVID 19 as the instances occurred in January and February — before an official closure was made.
By late January, we began asking why are we taking higher risk individuals into the park without care for their safety and without receiving sick pay, healthcare, or a living wage? A few of us – inspired by guiding benefit models that exist across the country– realized that we were an outlier for the experiences we provide and the risks we take on. We were further spurred on when we saw what happened when one of the respected, veteran guides quit after guiding for almost 20 years — no retirement, no healthcare, and no severance. Delaware North sees guides as completely replaceable and expendable. The senior guide left without so much as a “thank you” for taking thousands of people into the park over his tenure.
By early February, C-Tours trips had been given the moniker “Coronavirus Tours.” Some guides requested not to have these trips on their schedule, and as a result fewer trips were scheduled for those guides – many of whom were already suffering from a sparse 2 trip per week schedule.
Around the same time, we finished the proposal for employee protection. This document outlined our requests for sick pay, a living wage, and a discussion of what dictates reasonable risk on the job, with full legal description of each entity. On February 12th, we received confirmation that the document was leaked by one of the guides to management. Two days later, four guides involved in the process, including two veteran guides in Denali and a National Park Service First Responder, were called into the office and one-by-one fired in incredibly dubious and belittling manners.
February 14th was dubbed the “Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Keep in mind that these are some of the most professional guides that work for the company. In a further attempt to humiliate the guides, management contorted false claims. One guide was falsely accused of “flipping off random people.” The performance reports were so poorly written that verbiage included “xxxxx did not where [sic] his uniform properly”, and “xxxx was hostel [sic] to front desk staff,” neither of which was true and horribly misspelled. The individuals writing these false statements are the people dictating, in essence, who represents the face of our National Park. These guides were immediately forced to vacate the housing they paid Delaware North to rent. In the blink of an eye, these guides were made homeless in the middle of a Montana winter.
Word spread like wildfire among the guide community. Many questioned whether they’d be next. Some, including veterans, had not made enough money working to even leave town. The rest of the organizing effort tried to salvage what was left of the movement and do what was right for guides and other workers in similar situations. We did not know our rights at the time, but the union organizer informed us it was illegal to fire employees for organizing.
I joined another coworker on the picket line on the 17th of February at 8 AM and was subsequently let go at 10 AM.
Over the coming weeks we picketed once per week as we navigated the process of filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Two more guides, including one seven-year park ranger, were “constructively discharged” for outwardly joining the fight. After we started the filing process, management called the police on our picketing efforts. Officers from both the Forest Service and city of West Yellowstone tried to tell us that it was a right-to-work state, which Montana is not. When they realized that one of the individuals they were trying to “educate” was a Montana State House representative they quietly went on their way. When all was settled, we filed 11 violations of the National Labor Relations Act against Delaware North’s subsidiaries, Yellowstone Vacation Tours and Two Top Snowmobiles.
The unique intersection of public land use, labor rights, and a national pandemic response boiled over. As coronavirus became known in the national realm and nurses unions raised the flag of warning in Bozeman, trips went on as usual. In West Yellowstone, where wages have largely remained stagnant for the last 20 years, there exists minimal room for workers to act with the interests of the greater public in mind. Up until and including the last day of the winter season, March 15th, C-Tours trips were still being taken into the park.
After the shutdown in Montana on March 15th, large scale testing started to roll out statewide. On May 28th, the first sewer tests showed higher levels of Coronavirus in a town of 1,328, exponentially higher than those in the city of Bozeman, a city with a population over 50,000. Clearly, something was amiss. Sure enough, tests began to come back positive.
As the pandemic wore on and summer approached, we all wrote letters to Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, informing him of the negligence occurring in West Yellowstone. The Park placed stringent controls on its staff and delayed opening the Montana park entrances. A national reporter, visiting Yellowstone on assignment, noted the disparities between how The Park was handling the matter compared to the concessionaires, even though the concessionaires employees make up a significant portion of the workforce. The reporter concluded that Delaware North was the most lax of all the entities in both policy and enforcement.
Especially during the pandemic, the National Park Service and the public should be holding corporations like Delaware North accountable for its treatment of not just the land, but the representatives of that land. Yellowstone National Park deserves representation that is informed, healthy, and passionate. Under current circumstances, guides cannot represent Yellowstone in its best light. They are instead concerned with health and safety, whether they will be able to afford to eat dinner, and when they might lose their jobs. Guides, Yellowstone, and all public lands deserve better.
As winter approaches, we have entered into a settlement agreement with Delaware North concerning our labor charges. They will be required to post a notice to all employees that unions are legal and we will continue to fight for intelligent conversations. If anything, this settlement only brings more questions to forefront as we move forward.
There are three very important questions the public can ask:
- Why do we allow a company with a history of racketeering, devious operations, and clear disregard for the honor and dignity that our public lands deserve, to own and control access and health policy to now over 75% of seats entering Yellowstone in the winter?
- Given that winter guides act as the face of the National Parks and some guides are summer interpretive rangers, why does the Department of the Interior not hold clout to enforce similar pay and benefits, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Such benefits would allow intelligent decisions regarding risk to be made at the individual level.
- Is there a way to reform the bidding structure so that when contracts are awarded to companies, it takes into account the way that a company treats its workers? Every time a company with access rights to Yellowstone is bought or sold, the Park should assess how the new company will be run. This would ensure the highest quality of employees represent the face of the park, and optimize the experience created for the visitors like you and the American taxpayer.
Please join us in our fight to improve your winter visit to Yellowstone! Speak out. Be in touch.