Service With a Stickup

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Service With a Stickup

Are your chambermaid and mule guide friendly? Courteous? Under indictment?
By Debra Shore

Ironically, the biggest threats to your safety and property in several of our most popular national parks may be the very people hired to help you have a good time: concession employees, those nice folks who clean your cabin, grill your burger, and lead you down the canyon path on a mule. National forests and BLM lands don't have such services, and may be better off for it: Concession-employee crimes account for more than half of law-enforcement activity in Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks, where low pay, poor living conditions, high turnover rates, and shoddy background checks make for highly dysfunctional staffs. At Yosemite, park community-relations specialist Ron Hamann has completed a study of the 201 concession employees who accounted for nearly a quarter of all arrests in the park in 1992 and come up with some appalling numbers: For instance, 29 housekeepers arrested for stealing had prior records for theft. So what's a hapless visitor to do? Though most concession workers are decent folks--hey, Robert Redford waited tables at Yosemite Lodge--it would nevertheless seem wise to use that hotel safe.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon Village, on the South Rim, is home to more than 1,100 employees of Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, aka the Fred Harvey Company, the park's primary concessioner. In March, the employee rec center burned down, leaving even fewer social opportunities for staffers who already had "no other option but to sit around and drink all evening," says ranger Dave Brennan. Indeed, about 80 percent of the 140 concession-worker arrests last year were alcohol-related. Fortunately, no one's killed a visitor since 1984, when a newly divorced and distraught mule handler shot a man in the bar at El Tovar hotel on the South Rim. Stealing, however, has remained a steady pastime: Last September, police in Idaho apparently brought an end to a string of nearly 100 park burglaries (40 in Grand Canyon) when they arrested a suspect in several car break-ins at Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The man, who has confessed to stealing from four rooms at Grand Canyon, had worked there as a hotel supervisor.

On the creepier side, last winter an Arizona Highway Patrol officer pulled over a concession employee for a moving violation and discovered that he was wanted by the FBI in California for sexual assault and kidnapping. At the time he was working as a host at El Tovar.

Concessions at Yellowstone are handled by TW Recreational Services, which seems to make a business of relying on unreliable people: To get the 2,300 workers it needs for peak season, it hires 2,900; last year, 1,400 employees left before their terms were completed, and 300 were fired. The hot spots, not surprisingly, are the five employee pubs. "They are cesspools," declares ranger Pat Ozment. "That's where almost all our arrests originate." Sixty of the 90 arrests in Yellowstone last year involved concession employees, and Ozment estimates that 90 percent of them involved alcohol. In addition, all five sexual assaults that occurred in the park, including two on mentally handicapped female visitors, were committed by TW employees, and one worker fired last summer for "poor performance" turned out to be one of the major car looters in the area.

Out of the 201 Yosemite concession employees that Ron Hamann studied, 129 had been arrested for alcohol-related offenses or burglaries, or both--84 of them for the second (or third or fourth) time. Fifty-four of those 129 had prior arrest records for theft. Such repeat offenses are almost ridiculously common. "Why are they making people housekeepers who were involved in the past in property crimes?" asks law-enforcement chief Jeff Sullivan. Over the last ten years more than a quarter of all arrests in the park involved concession workers, busted for everything from drunkenness to domestic disputes to drug dealing.

The current concessioner, Yosemite Concession Services Corp. (which replaced the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. in October 1993), employs 1,850 people, including 1,200 who still live in trailers, tents, and run-down dorms in the seven-mile-long, half-mile-wide Yosemite Valley. The company has placed added emphasis on pre-employment drug testing and criminal-history background checks, and has hired a consultant to work on "community health promotion."

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