The West was still wild when Yellowstone became a national park in 1872 — four years before Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Calvary command were wiped out near the Little Bighorn River. In the enabling legislation, Congress decreed that the geothermal features and the rugged surrounding land be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The act allowed for a superintendent to be appointed, but allocated not a penny for roads or lodging, or for managing and protecting the new park. Instead, the superintendent was authorized to contract with private concessionaires who would build hotels and lodges and pay franchise fees, an arrangement that would become a model, for better or worse, not only for Yellowstone but across the National Park System.
Initially, several concessionaires provided park lodging and other services. But by 1882, the secretary of the interior, contrary to the recommendation of the park’s superintendent, granted exclusive lodging rights to a syndicate of investors backed by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Over time, through mergers and acquisitions, the Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, as it was known, expanded its monopoly within the park to include retail stores, restaurants, gasoline stations and other services. But as facilities deteriorated, the firm’s relationship with the Park Service soured, and its contract was canceled and its assets purchased by the federal government. In 1980, the concession was awarded to TW Recreational Services, which was acquired in 1995 by the company that would become Xanterra, now owned by Denver-based multibillionaire Philip Anschutz.
Today, while the park grants concession rights to two dozen backpack guide services, 20 horse and mule outfitters, 19 photographic safari operators, 13 guided bicycle touring businesses and two llama outfitters, there is but a single concessionaire for the park’s 2,000-plus hotel rooms and cabins.