by Jim Macdonald
The irony of working five summers in Yellowstone National Park was in being paid to spend months in paradise whereas others much wealthier than me spent a small fortune to spend very little time. If you are poor and single, it has never been particularly hard to gain access into places like Yellowstone. However, poor and single people tended to be young, college-aged white people. These days, they tend to be foreign students from Europe, Asia, and South America who rumor has it are used as tax right offs for the concessionaires who hire them. So, while it was ironic that I could make money to live in Yellowstone as a relatively poor boy, at the same time I was hardly representative of the lower class.
In a place of spectacular grandeur, it may be hard to notice the interesting ways class hierarchy exists in Yellowstone. Where people come for a natural wilderness experience, in fact, the experience is much more like being on the various levels of the Titanic, with first, second, and third class passengers. Protection of Yellowstone is among other things, protection of a class system; however, that hardly squares with our values of what Yellowstone is supposed to be.
Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but in fact it was set up for the Northern Pacific Railroad so that it might profit from those who would enjoy it. Not only did the Northern Pacific Railroad most likely first suggest the idea of Yellowstone as a national park, but also it dominated the concessions in Yellowstone for the first 50 years of Yellowstone’s existence. The railroad helped finance the great hotels of Yellowstone, including the Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel, in the hopes that wealthy travelers might ride the Northern Pacific to Gardiner, MT, and then take the railroad-dominated concession’s stagecoaches on a grand tour of the park while staying at its luxurious hotels. Yellowstone was created for the benefit and enjoyment of rich people for the profit of other wealthy people.
Yet, in all eras of the park, labor was needed to staff the hotels, maintain the roads, and work in the park. These staff took on the derogatory name “Savages,” and these were the lucky few poor and working class who managed to make money for long stretches while the wealthy poured out their pockets to the concessions. Of course, the actual Indians, long called “savages” by Euroamericans, who had lived or migrated through Yellowstone, had been kicked out. However, who were these new “Savages”? To what extent were they a working class, or to what extent were they like the Yellowstone workers of today? Were they foreign workers like much of today’s force? Were they college-aged students much like the recently deceased Gerald Ford, who served as a seasonal ranger in 1936? How did this change over time? And, if these people were a poorer working class, what made it possible for them to work seasons in Yellowstone? Was it the fortunate experience it was for me?
Yellowstone opened to the automobile in 1915, and with it came a sea change in the Yellowstone tourist. Now, Yellowstone was accessible to a large American middle class, at least an upper middle class who could afford to travel and a somewhat poorer middle class who lived closer to Yellowstone. Many of them also chose to camp rather than stay in the lush hotels. With this growing new set of people, a whole new class of people joined the rich and the class of working poor in Yellowstone.
In many respects, Yellowstone has not changed a whole lot since then. You still have large hotels for the rich, and winter is a special fiefdom for rich travelers. There are cabins and lodges for those with slightly less. Others travel by RV or sleep in tents. And, you still have an employee class who spends a season in Yellowstone. While Indians have an increasingly growing say in Yellowstone, they still are on the fringes of Yellowstone society. At least, they are showing up in the history books again.
Most years, 3 – 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park, paying for the gasoline, wear and tear on vehicles, entrance fees, souvenirs, food, fishing licenses, and lodging. They visit places run mostly by a few major concessions operated by Xanterra and/or Delaware North, or by the National Park Service itself, or the bookstores of the Yellowstone Association. Yellowstone began as a corporate and government venture; little has changed. The relative monopoly on access, management, and services lends itself very well to a stratified society, a feudal fiefdom in the woods.
On the other hand, what a beautiful woods in which to work as a serf! When I worked in Yellowstone during the mid-1990s, our room and board was provided by the concessionaire, which in my case was Hamilton Stores (now operated by Delaware North as the Yellowstone General Stores), for $8.50 a day. We were paid minimum wage, though on each successive year we received a five cent an hour raise, and we worked anywhere from 35 to 37.5 hours per week on split shifts, never receiving overtime. If you were lucky enough to wait tables, you could receive tips as well, which would essentially double the wages. It was not a terrible deal, to live and eat for $260 a month. Yet, only a specific type of person could afford to work in Yellowstone. Either you were retired and supplementing your income, or you were young, or you made a living migrating from tourist area to tourist area working seasonally. Very few people worked in Yellowstone year round because there are very few year round jobs within the park.
The point is that Yellowstone may have people from every class, but the working class in Yellowstone is a special working class. Most poor never see a place like Yellowstone and have no opportunity to do so. Most poor have families cannot afford the poor job security that comes with seasonal work, and many could not afford the journey to Yellowstone to get to the job. Notice that I do not even suggest that most poor could possibly consider a vacation to Yellowstone!
The other point is that benefit and enjoyment in Yellowstone is specific to the class to which one belongs. While the working poor in Yellowstone in some respects have it best because they can spend a long time in Yellowstone, I also do not know of too many who have ever stayed in the Old Faithful Inn, either!
Protection of Yellowstone in some respect seems to mean protection of the system in place as it is managed along class lines. While there is no doubt that protection is on the one hand about protecting landmarks, geological features, and wildlife (albeit imperfectly due to the conflicts that arise in creating so many visitor services), it is on the other also about protecting access to those landmarks, geological features, and wildlife. In essence, Yellowstone is a political boundary with legal and economic boundaries within. If you destroy the boundaries, you also threaten the class ecosystem in Yellowstone.
For instance, consider this. Can workers create their own economic cooperative in Yellowstone or essentially run the concession? In theory, it would be possible, but they would have to win the concession lease from the National Park Service in a competitive bidding that is rigged against anyone that is not in the game. Could workers organize labor unions? I do not even know the answer to that question; I fail to see why they couldn’t. Yet, if they did, what good is a union of seasonal employees who change from year to year? The middle class has exerted its influence by paying membership into large non-governmental organizations (NGOs), either recreational associations or environmental organizations, in order to assert their influence over park policy. In truth, they fund another upper class to make decisions for them, but such inconsistency has always been a hallmark of middle class organizing, a class with too much at stake within the system to ruffle too many feathers.
Protection of Yellowstone is a protection of class inequality. That does not bother that many Americans, but perhaps it should. Why is a place like Yellowstone valuable? That is a huge question, but one thing that there has been a general consensus on is that it is valuable for its unique features and wildlife. Yellowstone is a special place ostensibly because we value things that normally in the history of the world have been given a fourth class place in the world. Yellowstone is set up as an exception to that hierarchy. We lift up something that humans have not made and the things within it that are not human. It is a buffer against our general tendency, a place that is a benefit and enjoyment to us because it is what it is rather than what it might otherwise do for us. And yet, we do not seem to understand that point when we simultaneously set up a Yellowstone that is and has been set up along class lines and manage the kind of access specific to the particular classes who can benefit from and obtain enjoyment of it. Instead of creating a Yellowstone that is a special exception, Yellowstone is the place where we set up something called “natural” and determine access to it based on one’s relative class position in the larger society. That inequity ultimately lends itself to an inequity toward the land and animals themselves because of the conflict that exists between the privileges of class and the land itself.
So, we have those who believe they have a right to snowmobile in Yellowstone, for instance. Since Yellowstone was set up for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, why not allow all to access it through the means available to them? If the rich can enjoy Yellowstone by paying for guides, why can’t I as a private citizen do the same without a guide? That dispute comes about because there are class distinctions inherent in Yellowstone. Yet, when one group asserts itself against the injustices of the class distinctions that exist, then it is often the land and the wildlife that lose out. Snowmobiling for all may seem more equitable when compared with paying for a private tour, but it is hardly equitable for the land and wildlife that suffer under the scourge of snowmobiles. Those who then fight against snowmobiles, however, end up serving the interests of the most privileged classes. It is as though the “nature” of Yellowstone was the one preserved only for the few original passengers of the Northern Pacific Railroad. And, of course, below this, the poor do not own snowmobiles, cannot afford to come to a Yellowstone with snowmobiles, and the populist rhetoric of an organized segment of the middle class means nothing to them.
Class manifests itself in Yellowstone like it does in every part of our society, and class hierarchy is contrary to the values that have driven our special adoration of Yellowstone. Solutions related to class obviously cannot be restricted to Yellowstone because they involve an entire social and economic system over and beyond anything that happens in the park. Yet, as a wedge against class in Yellowstone, I would suggest that one of the first steps is for us who care to encourage an environment where workers can organize for their own benefit much the way that the wealthy classes can manipulate government and the way the middle classes can use NGOs. Another step is for the people who live in the gateway communities of Yellowstone to do the same. All the rest of us who care about Yellowstone should start by understanding the means in which class hierarchy exists in Yellowstone and how that squares with the values we hold about the park.
That is one reason I intend to research and write a people’s history of Yellowstone, if such a history exists. I believe this takes precedent over more funding for Yellowstone. Our funding goes to protect the land and the wildlife, but it also goes to protect a class system that will ultimately destroy the land and the wildlife. If we want to make a dramatic difference for the place we love, we have to reassess where we put our energy, time, and resources.
For more on Jim, also see The Magic of Yellowstone tag tag2