Lofty ambition and too little financial transparency hamstrung Yellowstone Forever during its fledgling years, and now the organization finds itself fighting for its life at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has been especially crippling for nonprofits that depend greatly on philanthropy.

This story also appeared in National Parks Traveler

The organization that carried grandiose visions in 2016 when the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Yellowstone Association merged today is largely a shell of itself, having shut down the venerable Yellowstone Institute and terminated half its staff, including its vice president of operations and the teams that worked under him. Now on its third CEO, the nonprofit has invited real estate agents to look at some of its properties, decided it couldn’t afford to run Institute programs even on a limited basis this summer, and is continuing to explore further cost-cutting.

The problems possibly could have been avoided with some fiscal prudence over the years, say some familiar with the internal operations.

“For a significant period of time from the merger on, we spent money we didn’t have, we spent money that shouldn’t have been spent,” said Rob Bush, Yellowstone Forever’s vice president for operations until he was let go June 5.

A former Marine who came out of retirement to work for the Yellowstone Association, and then Yellowstone Forever, or YF as it’s referred to, Bush doesn’t have an axe to grind for losing his job. He’s secure. But he is greatly concerned about the other 32 YF employees who lost their jobs earlier this month, who need to pay mortgages and feed their families. He believes it wouldn’t have come to that if YF’s executive staff and board of directors had paid close attention to revenues and expenses.

A GRAND VISION

Great anticipation surrounded the news in 2015 that the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Yellowstone Association would merge. In a joint news release the groups said their union would create a single nonprofit organization with more than 50,000 supporters. The combined organization would be more flexible and able to respond more effectively to the needs of Yellowstone National Park, they said.

“The Yellowstone Association has enjoyed a proud heritage since 1933 of connecting visitors to Yellowstone and our natural world through education,” Jeff Brown, executive director of the Yellowstone Association, said at the time. “We are excited that the new organization will serve the combined missions and connect people to Yellowstone through outstanding visitor experiences and educational programs, as well as translating those experiences into lifelong support and philanthropic investment.”

“It’s very clear that when this top-level leadership was brought in after the merger, they operated like we had endless money to spend.”

Zack Park, former director of operations for the Yellowstone Institute

His counterpart at the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Karen Bates Kress, said that not only would the new organization “have a responsibility to the employees, members and donors of both organizations to continue our mission to serve one of our nation’s crown jewels, Yellowstone National Park,” but added that “We believe combining both organizations will result in a more responsive organization that will better promote, protect and enhance the Park experience for the millions of visitors each year.”

Smoothly meshing two organizations with two differing missions, though, is challenging at best. The Yellowstone Association had for eight decades focused on an educational mission, and marketed it through bookstores and the Yellowstone Association Institute’s programs in the national park. The Yellowstone Park Foundation had worked since 1996 to raise philanthropic dollars to fund such park programs as wildlife research, cutthroat trout restoration, trail maintenance, and youth education.

Both nonprofits had commendable track records:

  • Over the decades the Yellowstone Association had provided $59 million in aid to Yellowstone National Park, and was the park’s primary partner in providing educational programs, exhibits, and publications for park visitors. In 2015 its operations included 12 educational stores with gross sales of $3.7 million, and the Yellowstone Association Institute offered nearly 600 in-depth courses each year, and a membership program with nearly 35,000 members.
  • The Yellowstone Park Foundation, meanwhile, had raised more than $100 million for the park, and funded more than 325 important projects and initiatives.

The stated intent of the 2016 merger was to create a “new model” of national park philanthropy. While the Yellowstone Association brought assets of $13.6 million to the marriage, the Yellowstone Park Foundation came with $7.2 million. But over the past four years that nearly $21 million has slowly but steadily declined. For Fiscal 2019, the organization showed an annual budget deficit of nearly $4 million, which dropped net assets to $14.5 million; the bulk of those assets, $10.5 million (after depreciation), were in land, buildings, and equipment.

Most of the real estate holdings were brought to merger by the Yellowstone Association.

TRANSFER OF POWER

High expectations for the newly created YF didn’t seem to last long. Internally, there were concerns among Yellowstone Association staff who came to the new organization that their education mission would be lost. While there were assurances that wouldn’t happen, differing views of moving YF forward at one point led a number of board directors who came from the Yellowstone Association to resign en masse from the YF board.

By 2018, the board of directors appeared to contain just one member, Tom Detmer, who had come to the merger with the Yellowstone Association. Nine were from the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

“The YPF board took over,” said Zack Park, who had worked for the Yellowstone Association since 2013 and was director of operations for the Institute at the time he was let go in May. “We [YA] were thriving. We were absolutely thriving. The Institute was consistently on the upward trajectory as far as revenues, as far as program participation. I think it’s important to note that year for which that last 990 covers [2018], that was a low year because one of the park hotels [Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel] that we used extensively for programs was closed for renovations.”

Still, “we were looking at what was about a 10 percent increase in tuition revenue over the previous year,” Park went on, “so it was a real great year, and we were trying to message that out. But it was clear that that’s a message that wasn’t supported by some folks at the top. Ultimately, we were successful, and now they’re trying to say the Institute loses money, and the only way I can explain that is the only reason we lose money is all the expense that was allocated to our department.”

According to Park, when the numbers were being prepared for the FY2019 990 (990s are the tax statements nonprofits must file annually with the IRS), which covered March 1, 2018-February 28, 2019, the Institute’s financial position was artificially dragged down.

“I’m the director of [Institute] operations, so I’m responsible for the oversight of the budget and a lot of resources,” he explained. “The actuals we got from our finance office, our CFO, showed that for that period of time our expenses were about $1.3 million. And that includes allocations like HR, IT, cross-departmental allocations. But then after they showed it to us, they dumped about another $2.3 million in allocated expenses below the line. So we went from being a half-a-million dollars in the black that fiscal year to being $1.7-$1.8 million in the red.

“And it has everything to do with this huge amount of organizational expense that our CFOs have been essentially conspiring with the board to allocate, knowing that how they allocated and how it appears on the 990 can serve as support for a narrative that they’ve been trying to spin.”

Edna Johnson, who was on the Yellowstone Park Foundation board at the time of the merger and now serves as acting CEO of YF, did not return repeated calls for this story. Kevin Butt, the environmental sustainability director for Toyota North America, Inc. and another member of the Yellowstone Park Foundation board at the time of the merger who now sits on the YF board, declined several requests to discuss the current situation at YF.

Heather White, YF’s original CEO who stated when the merger was announced that the new organization would be “a powerful force for education and philanthropy to protect this wonderland that we love so much,” also did not return a phone call seeking her perspectives on what went wrong.

“It’s very clear that when this top-level leadership was brought in after the merger, they operated like we had endless money to spend,” said Park. “Like once the merger happened we were going to be a national brand like Coca-Cola. ‘Don’t worry about it, tons of people are going to give us money.’ I’ve seen the invoices. I’ve seen what had come through, and folks working in the finance office were alarmed.

“There was simply no action taken to slow the spending,” he said.

FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY

To run any business, for-profit, not-for-profit, or nonprofit, you need to stay on top of your financial ledgers. How much money is coming in and from where, how much is going out and for what. Computer software can help staff easily can track that and spit out profit-and-loss (P&L) statements.

Also reflected in a nonprofit’s books should be segregated “restricted” donations, or contributions for a specific project; in the case of YF, whether the donations were for wolf research in Yellowstone or youth education. 

Park’s description of how his budget suddenly was weighed down by $2.3 million from some other department’s expenses was not an isolated episode, according to Bush.

“If money is being utilized by a particular department to raise money, but those expenses are allocated somewhere else, when you look at the net, it looks better than it really is,” he said. “And it may be perfectly legal to do so, but if you’re making business decisions on that — which is really bad business by the way — if you’re making business decisions on that kind of thinking, you essentially look at it and say, ‘We’re doing great, let’s keep doing this because it’s working.’ Well it’s not working. You can’t be sure it’s working.”

The 990 forms that YF was required to file with the Internal Revenue Service each year don’t offer much of a track record, as only three have been filed since the merger. The first, for 2016, shows the organization took in $4.5 million in contributions and grants, and had nearly $5.7 million in expenses, for a $380,323 shortfall for the year.

“I do believe there were, there are, people within YF that didn’t have and still don’t have necessarily a lot of clarity around what the finances look like, and how one particular part of an operation affects another.”

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly

In 2017 the nonprofit received $10.9 million in grants and contributions and had $17.5 million in expenses, for another shortfall, of $1.6 million. For 2018, or FY19, the organization reported $10.3 million in grants and contributions (a drop of $606,226 from the previous year), and expenses of $19 million, for a loss of $3.8 million.

Through those years permanent staff slowly grew, from 117 the year of the merger to 205 in 2018. Overall salaries grew, as well, from $2 million that first year to $7.3 million in 2018. Growth in salaries would be expected with growth in overall staff, but seven top staff combined were being paid $1.19 million in salaries by 2018, plus another $108,213 in benefits, according to the FY19 990.

The overall growth in YF payroll, from $6.4 million in FY18 to $7.3 million in FY19, came as revenues were continuing to decline.

As the expenses continued to outpace the revenues, YF obtained two lines of credit, totaling $6.5 million. Collateral against those lines included the facilities the Yellowstone Association brought to the merger:

  • The “Arch House,” which was designed by Robert Reamer, the same architect who designed the Old Faithful Inn, near the north entrance of the park in Gardiner, Montana;
  • the “NEC,” or Northeast Education Center that accommodated Yellowstone Association staff, and;
  • the 80-acre Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus, which the association acquired in 2010 for $2.25 million.

The field campus was obtained to be used exclusively for park visitors participating in Yellowstone Association Institute educational programs.

But almost from the start there was profligate spending, contends Bush. White was given a salary package approaching $300,000 when benefits were included (it surpassed $300,000 her last year with the organization), and she raised other top executive salaries so there wouldn’t be great disparity between hers and theirs, he said.

(During the last year of the Yellowstone Park Foundation the CEO, Karen Kress, was paid $160,109 in salary, and Jeff Brown received $110,493 as CEO of the Yellowstone Association in its final year.)

“And we overspent. The bottom line was we overspent,” Bush continued during a phone call. “She overspent. She would ask, the CFO would say yes, and they would spend the money. And this was without fully loaded P&Ls that everybody’s looking at for decision-making. It’s not like we grew into an organization that required that size of staff with those levels of salaries. It was artificial.”

Questionable expenses could be found in salaries, furniture purchases, credit card expenses, travel, “all kinds of things,” he said.

“You should have meetings in which you’re looking at fully loaded P&Ls so that capital expenditures for next fiscal year are being planned 18 months out,” said Bush. “And [we should be] giving ourselves a monthly checkup, how we’re doing, a quarterly review, an annual assessment before the budget is sent to the board for approval to say, yes, and here’s the money. You’ve got the money in the bank and it’s been set aside and its ready to do those capital projects for the next year. Not how it was done. Not even close to how it was done.”

Bush’s concerns are very likely tied to his military career. He retired from the Marines in 2010 after 27 years with a rank of sergeant major. His last 15 years with the Marines were spent as “senior enlisted advisor to the commander” (who at times was a four-star general) with responsibility to serve as a conduit between the commander and various entities under the commander’s purview.

“I came from a background where responsibility and accountability matter. It doesn’t have to be illegal for someone to be on the hook and responsible,” he said. “And when it fails, or it fails more than once, or it continues to fail, in the world of leadership that I come from, or where I believe things need to be, people should look at that and say, ‘Look, I’m not sure what happened, or I’m not sure I can articulate how it happened, but it happened on my watch and I’m going to step aside and let someone else step in and try to make this right.’

“We have not had any of that,” said Bush. “No one has taken accountability and responsibility in a way to say, ‘This is on me, this is on us.’ I think lip service has been paid to that.”

YELLOWSTONE’S OVERSIGHT

YF as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operates in partnership with Yellowstone National Park and with an agreement from the National Park Service allowing them to raise funds for the park. Under that arrangement, Yellowstone’s superintendents can be viewed as ex officio members of YF’s board of directors.

Dan Wenk, who was Yellowstone’s superintendent at the time of the merger and up until 2018, wasn’t alarmed by the quick operational ramp-up by White and her team. He believed they had a realistic strategy.

“I wasn’t alarmed. They had a plan, they had a plan to move forward, they had a plan to basically make one plus one equals three in terms of making both organizations, philanthropy, education, the stores, retail, putting it all together and really building the organization. I think that’s what they were trying to implement, so I wasn’t alarmed,” Wenk said from his Rapid City, South Dakota home. “I saw a lot of potential where they didn’t have the kind of staff they needed to follow up on all the leads that they had, everything that was going on, so I saw a need to expand their staff, without any question, in order to build the philanthropic support for the park. I supported that 100 percent.”

But Cam Sholly, the park’s current superintendent, was so concerned about YF’s bookkeeping that at one board meeting he told the board, “You’ve got to come clean,” recalled Bush.

“We haven’t fixed it, and I don’t know why. We have been beating that drum over and over and over. The senior leadership has always known it, and failed to act.”

Rob Bush, former vice president of operations for Yellowstone Forever

“Those are the words. He said those words point blank to our board,” he said. “I heard them and I dropped my pen and am thinking ‘no shit.’

“Cam has been an advocate of that [financial transparency]. I have been in multiple meetings that Cam has been present in. I can go back to even when Heather was here and Cam met with Heather, myself, the interim CFO, where he held her and us to task,” added Bush. “I do not believe that Cam is failing in any way to set the expectation and standard for us. I do believe we have failed to live up to that.”

Sholly understandably is greatly concerned about YF’s future. Like Bush, he’s concerned about a lack of financial transparency when it comes to tracking revenues, expenses, and allocations between the organization’s various departments.

“I do believe there were, there are, people within YF that didn’t have and still don’t have necessarily a lot of clarity around what the finances look like, and how one particular part of an operation affects another,” said the superintendent during an interview last week. “What I find in each individual component, the retail vs. the Institute vs. the philanthropic side, they kind of somewhat know what’s going on in their own part of the organization, but I think that hasn’t necessarily been fully understood across all levels, including even in the executive group.”

As for his role with YF’s board of directors, Sholly said he wasn’t there to influence decisions on personnel or finances, he was more of an observer. At the same time, he said that, “You’d hope that you’re getting the right information and that the information that you’re getting is accurate. I think in this particular case … there’s unquestionably a need for better oversight and better transparency in YF moving forward.”

Bush said he repeatedly called for that transparency, and can document his efforts. He said he’s raised the issue of fiduciary accountability and responsibilty time and again, at board meetings, in committee meetings, in conversations with the rotating CFOs, even to White.

YF’s accountants even presented the board with a report stating that the organization does not “have timely, transparent financials that are in operational language that can be used for decision-making. That’s a fact,” said Bush. “We haven’t fixed it, and I don’t know why. We have been beating that drum over and over and over. The senior leadership has always known it, and failed to act. It’s always lip service.”

YF’S FUTURE

Whether YF can survive the current financial turmoil will have a huge impact on the national park. The recent cost-cutting included substantial reductions in grants to Yellowstone. Once the recipient of millions of dollars of YF grants each year for a wide range of programs, from research to education, the park this year expects only a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Somehow, the nonprofit needs to scrape its way back to profitability, and preferably not by divesting the properties that the Yellowstone Association brought to the merger.

“What we can’t have happen is for some mass sell-off of assets,” said Sholly. “Then we’re at disadvantage in a year or two or whatever when we need that housing for our Institute employees. But there is the reality that if YF doesn’t take some of these extraordinary measures, there will not be a YF. I probably don’t need to tell anybody this, but all of those assets — there’s a fairly large amount of debt on the books — so if YF went bankrupt, let’s say, and the Institute people need to understand this, all of those assets would go to the bank, and potentially be gone.

“It’s in everybody’s interests in the short term to ensure that we have the right amount of organizational streamlining that’s occurring to get their operating costs below or within their revenue levels and try to get through this period of COVID where we can actually start better predicting the revenues from the normal streams.”

Already YF has put on the market a three-bedroom, two-bath house north of Yellowstone.

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Any amount makes a difference.

While Bush, Park, and others associated with the Institute came up with an operational plan that would have allowed small van tour programs to resume, Johnson told them the numbers couldn’t justify the cost. Bush disagrees.

“The only people we intended to bring back for these private tours were seasonal instructors,” he said. “Seasonal instructors are paid by the hour. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. We weren’t bringing back fleet and logistics support; that was going to be done by me. The people that work for me are furloughed. We were not going to bring back anyone to run the field campuses, they’re furloughed.

“These programs could be in effect by the 13th of June, by the way, which is when we were going to roll them out. And we would be making a profit, at a time when they [YF] need positive revenues,” said Bush. “With 100 percent certainty we would be delivering a profit.”

Then, as restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were eased, more Institute programs could be restarted, he said.

The coronavirus pandemic definitely has impacted YF, which ordered inventory for the 2020 summer season but has not been able to open its retail stores in the park, and the Institute will not be running any programs for the foreseeable future.

But the pandemic did not cause the nonprofit’s financial crisis; it aggravated it. As YF’s 990s show, the organization simply wasn’t taking in enough money to offset its expenses. Whether they made any headway against the losses in 2019 could be signaled this summer when another financial report is expected.

Whatever course is taken, Sholly wants to see the Institute back in business.

“We’ve got to be very careful with some of these assets because my goal, in whatever form it comes about, is to make sure that the Institute comes out of this solvent and continues to deliver the incredible services it has for the park, that have really complemented the Park Service’s education programs over the years,” the superintendent said.

From his standpoint, Bush believes a forensic audit must be performed on YF’s books.

“I’ve said that internally, this is part of notes that I’ve submitted in writing. I’ve shared it with the finance audit committee chair on the board as recently as three weeks ago,” he said. “There needs to be a line-by-line scrub of the general ledger. And I’m not saying it through a lens of there has been some false or bad accounting, or something has been done that’s illegal.

“… We’ve let the accountants, if you will, allocate where and how expenses live in such a way that it makes the business unit owners incapable of making good business decisions,” added Bush, saying he’s seen expenses logged in the wrong places. “And the only way for the business owners to know exactly where the expenses are improperly aligned, is to scrub it line by line.”

Whether the current financial problems will adversely impact YF’s fundraising remains to be seen.

“I think there’s a lot of work that’s going to need to be done to reinstill the level of confidence that’s going to be needed for many people to give to YF, and I think we’ve got to get through this period here and in the meantime look at a variety of different options for the future,” said Sholly. “I can’t say what those are right now.

“I think it’s important for people to understand, I think the vision for the merger was noble. I don’t know that the execution post-merger was the best it could have been. I think it could have been a lot better in hindsight, but I really want to focus more on the future and what that might look like.”


This story cannot be republished without the permission of National Parks Traveler.

Kurt Repanshek

Before founding National Parks Traveler in 2005, Kurt Repanshek reported for the Associated Press for 14 years. His newspaper and magazine writing is published widely.