Bozeman Chronicle 6/7/2019:

Yellowstone Park philanthropic group lays off employees

By Michael Wright Chronicle Staff Writer

The nonprofit foundation that raises money for Yellowstone National Park laid off a half-dozen employees last month, a move multiple sources said seemed to be a flawed attempt to deal with deeper financial problems.

Yellowstone Forever, the main philanthropic organization supporting Yellowstone, fired six employees in mid-May. The six employees were from different departments within the organization, including gifts and records management, a call center and facilities and sustainability.

Four worked in Gardiner, two worked remotely. At least two of the six were asked to remain at work through the summer while others were sent home immediately.

The firings came in just the organization’s third year, and they followed the departure of several employees who disagreed with the organization’s trajectory, according to former employees who spoke with the Chronicle. Another two employees left last week, just two weeks after the layoffs, and multiple sources estimated that more than two-dozen had left in the last year. One former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “there is an alarm going off, for sure.”

The organization’s board of directors meets this Thursday and Friday, and some are hoping to see drastic change.

“Corrective actions need to be taken so that everybody on staff at Yellowstone Forever has the same level of accountability and scrutiny,” said Dennis McIntosh, Yellowstone Forever’s former director of facilities and sustainability, who was laid off in May. “That’s what I think needs to happen, and I think when that happens there will be new leadership.”

Yellowstone Forever President and CEO Heather White was unavailable for an interview. Megan Boyle, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email that the layoffs happened “for several reasons, primarily job redundancies.”

“We are deeply grateful to the affected employees for their many contributions to our organization,” Boyle said.

She said the organization has 68 year-round full-time employees and 77 seasonal employees and volunteers. She declined to discuss employee departures beyond saying the group’s “voluntary employee turnover rate is in line with nonprofit industry averages.”

She added that the organization is proud that it has provided $18 million in cash grants and $20 million in in-kind aid to Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Forever formed in 2016 after the merger of the Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation. Some who worked for the two predecessor organizations were dismayed by the merger, worried the cultures of the two might clash.

During the fiscal year ending Feb. 28, 2018, the group provided more than $5.6 million in cash support to Yellowstone, according to the organization’s annual report. The money went to several programs, including native fish restoration and research on wolves and other predators.

But along the way, some employees grew concerned about the way the group was being managed. Some worried that too much money was being diverted toward salaries for high-level officials — White earned more than $280,000 in salary and other compensation in 2017, according to the group’s tax documents — and saw a significant financial hole.

McIntosh said that financial trouble seemed to create an opportunity for managers to get rid of him. He said he’d sort of seen his firing coming because of disagreements he’d had with higher-ups there.

But he doesn’t think the six salaries could make a significant dent in a financial hole that he and others the Chronicle spoke to estimated to be in the millions. He said that logic “rings hollow to me just from the sheer numbers.”

Nicole Harkness was another of the employees laid off in May. Harkness worked as an information specialist in a call center in Gardiner, a two-person operation where they funneled incoming phone calls to the right people within the organization. Her office in the old Yellowstone Association building had a window looking into the park. She had been with the organization for 14 months when she was fired.

She said she arrived around 8 a.m. on her last day. Her supervisor scheduled a meeting with her for 10:30 that morning. She showed up to the meeting with a notebook and coffee, still not sure what was coming. By 10:40, the conversation was over. She said they told her that her firing was part of “organizational restructuring,” and that she couldn’t finish the workday.

“For me, it actually came as quite a surprise,” she said.

She said a problem with the organization had been a “lack of honest communication and financial transparency.” She also doesn’t buy the idea of “job redundancies,” especially since she was one of only two people answering phones.

“I can’t get an after-work beer with some of my friends because they have to work overtime to pick up some of the so-called job redundancies,” Harkness said.

She wrote to Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly about the layoffs, urging him to call out White on her financial decisions. Harkness wrote that she makes something like 10% of what the CEO makes, and that the organization shouldn’t be allowed to “skimp on its mission of support at the cost of community members and bloated management salaries.”

“Yellowstone needs all of us collaborating on solutions, not a few filling their pockets on the generosity of the public,” Harkness wrote. “There is no place for greed in the park designed for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”