A new public-private effort to spruce up Yellowstone

The tourist season is virtually over at -Yellowstone National Park, but there is still considerable activity. Many of the historical buildings are being renovated and new facilities are being constructed.

It is all part of an unusual public-private effort to improve the conditions of the oldest, largest, and most popular of the US national parks.

Just five years ago the park's 1,300 buildings, which range from small cabins to large buildings such as the Old Faithful Inn, were falling into wrack and ruin. The Park Service was getting complaints about the condition of the facilities, the quality of the food, and the difficulty in obtaining reservations. However, because of the nature of the contract with the concessionaire, the Yellowstone Park Company, Park Service officials had little legal leverage to improve the situation.

Finally, three years ago Congress gave the Park Service permission to buy out the interest of the concessionaire and to begin renovating the structures the company had used. All the tourist operations at national parks are operated by private companies. Although the firms do not own the buildings they use, the law recognizes a ''possessory interest'' and it was this that the Park Service bought back.

''Because we had bought back these rights and intended to spend a considerable sum of money to improve the buildings, it didn't make any sense to turn these rights over to someone else,'' explains James Thompson, acting park supervisor.

As a result, Park Service officials decided on an approach unique to the national park system. They decided to offer an interim contract at Yellowstone. ''Rather than a normal contract, this was a management contract which avoided the concessionary interest question,'' Mr. Thompson explains.

The winner of that contract was TWA Services, which is also the concessionaire on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and in Zion and Bryce national parks. TWA Services agreed to spend 13.6 percent of its gross receipts and to put a cap on its profits.

''It's a unique contract,'' acknowledges Harold Ritchie, the TWA vice-president in charge of the Yellowstone operation, adding, ''The Park Service got burned by the past concessionaire and they are being cautious. We don't have any problem with that.''

During the two years of the interim contract, ''things went as smoothly as could be expected, given the radical change involved,'' says Thompson.

Last year, when the Park Service evaluated proposals for a five-year management contract, they awarded this to TWA as well. In this agreement, TWA has agreed to use 22 percent of gross receipts for renovation and put a 5 percent cap on its profit.

''Twenty-one million in sales in 110 days is a pretty good business,'' explains Mr. Ritchie. ''Still, with the high starting and stopping costs involved in (such a short season), it is difficult to reach the 5 percent mark, '' he claims.

In the two years of the interim contract, TWA spent $6.4 million and the Park Service $4.6 million on renovations, including fire safety improvements, new roofing, and remodeling of some of the kitchens. This year, they expect to spend more than $11 million on improvements in the 100-square-mile park.

The bears and wildlife, the geysers and hot springs will still be main attractions at Yellowstone, but visitors in the next few years also can expect to find better food, spruced-up lodging, and an improved reservation service.

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