Yellowstone Forever logo

The logo for Yellowstone Forever.

The philanthropic arm of Yellowstone National Park went deeper into the red in 2018, ending up with a total budget deficit of $3.8 million when its fiscal year ended in February 2019, financial documents show.

The same year, four of Yellowstone Forever’s top paid employees received base pay increases that topped $24,000 — including a $35,000 bump for the chief development officer.

Most notably, its president and CEO received a $24,800 base pay boost and another $19,250 in bonus and incentive compensation, pushing her total earnings beyond $300,000 in her final full fiscal year with the organization.

Last May, Yellowstone Forever announced a round of layoffs. In June, within a week of the layoffs and rumored financial trouble being publicized, president and CEO Heather White announced she would resign.

The full picture of its financial straits is shown in the group’s most recent Form 990, posted to its website last week. It shows a $1.7 million loss for the group’s visitor education programming and a roughly $570,000 loss for the stores it runs throughout the park.

And it shows that the total salaries, benefits and other compensation across the organization increased by more than $900,000. More than one-sixth of that increase went entirely to the paychecks of people at the top.

John Walda, interim CEO and president, said this week that the document is “old news,” and that there weren’t any surprises to him. He served as treasurer of the board of directors as the budget and salary increases for that fiscal year were approved, and he defended the board’s decision to OK the budget despite the group running a $1.6 million deficit in the prior fiscal year.

“The plan was that this investment in personnel and in technology, etc., would result in more revenue,” Walda said. “That was based upon the plan that was submitted to us as the board.”

Yellowstone Forever formed in 2016 after the merger of the Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation. The idea was to join the association’s educational mission with the foundation’s fundraising focus.

It operates bookstores in visitor centers throughout the park and offers myriad educational programs year-round. It also provides millions of dollars in grants to the park, supporting major research efforts and projects like lake trout suppression in Yellowstone Lake.

White was the group’s first leader. She came to Yellowstone Forever from the Environmental Working Group, as did a few other top Yellowstone Forever officials.

There was turmoil from the start, with some seeing the missions of the two merged organizations as conflicting. Prior to the layoffs last spring, dozens of employees had left the organization because they were upset with its direction.

Financial problems came as expenses far outpaced the revenue that was coming into the organization.

The plan didn’t work. The group’s most recent financial documents show revenue declined by nearly $670,000 from fiscal year 2018 (covering the months from March 1, 2017, to Feb. 28, 2018) to fiscal year 2019 (March 1, 2018, to Feb. 28, 2019).

Walda said the deficit of $3.8 million in fiscal year 2019 is a mix of a $2.7 million operating loss and the spending of about $1.1 million in restricted money — donations set aside for specific purposes — that wasn’t backfilled.

In all, the group gave $5.5 million in support to Yellowstone National Park and the U.S. Forest Service in fiscal year 2019.

Much has changed since Walda took over. Of the seven top paid employees listed in the 990 from fiscal year 2019, only one person remains — Wendie Carr, the chief marketing officer, who has been with Yellowstone Forever since the merger and was with the Yellowstone Association for years before that.

Walda said this week that the organization now has 65 permanent full-time equivalent employees, a drop from the 81 it employed last year at this time. He said the group’s number of seasonal and part-time hires would remain about the same.

Some of the permanent vacancies are at the top, including the general counsel position, a job that came with pay of about $158,000, according to the group’s financial documents. The person who held that job was one of the six top earners who left the group.

Walda said that position would remain empty for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve decided that for the present time we will outsource our needs for legal representation and that hopefully will result in savings,” Walda said.

In other places, duties have been consolidated. One of the top fundraisers for the group has taken over the work that went to the former chief development officer, who earned a little more than $190,000, according to financial documents.

For the high level positions that have been filled, Walda said the group worked “to make sure the salaries are appropriate compared to others in the region.”

Yellowstone Forever is still in search of a permanent CEO. Walda said the group is hiring a search firm and hopes to have that person in place by June.

Walda said he doesn’t have a number in mind for how much that person will get paid, but that the “target” is going to be less than what White made.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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