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Yellowstone National Park sign

A sign for Yellowstone National Park sits along U.S. Highway 191. A nonprofit foundation that raises money for the park has $4.35M in debt

BOZEMAN — The nonprofit foundation that raises money for Yellowstone National Park had a budget deficit of about $2 million this past fiscal year and its total debt is more than twice that, its top executive said.

Yellowstone Forever’s financial hole, according to board treasurer and interim CEO John Walda, is due to faulty revenue projections from 2016, when it formed out of its two parent organizations. He said the organization invested heavily in its staff, buildings and technology, thinking plenty of money would flow into the organization’s coffers.

But it didn’t. At least not yet.

“We haven’t seen the increase in revenue from those investments to date,” Walda said. “But I’m confident that they’re down the road.”

The shortfall had consequences. The organization ordered a round of layoffs in May. The former CEO resigned earlier this month. And even before that, dozens of employees walked away from the organization, dismayed at its direction. Each step contributed to a palpable sense of turmoil at the young organization dedicated to supporting the world’s first national park.

Walda is now charged with bringing Yellowstone Forever back in line, or at least bridging the gap until a new CEO is hired. He spoke to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle alongside Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly at Mammoth Hot Springs last week, trying to lay out how things went wrong and how they could go right.

Since forming from the merger of the Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Yellowstone Forever has provided major support to Yellowstone, helping pay for things like native fish restoration and wolf research. It runs bookstores at several locations inside the park and a number of popular educational programs. In all, the group has provided at least $18 million in cash grants to the park, and millions more in in-kind support. Sholly said the park itself “doesn’t survive” without Yellowstone Forever.

The recovery plan is not completely sussed out. Yellowstone Forever stopped filling some vacant jobs beginning in March 2018, and a spokeswoman said that’s contributed to a total of $1.29 million in savings by staff reduction. Walda wouldn’t say whether there would be more layoffs but said the organization is working to “right-size” itself.

The plan will include a reduction in cash support for the park. Restricted donations — money donors give for a specific purpose — wouldn’t be affected, but unrestricted cash could be cut.

Sholly said the park is working with the nonprofit to balance the park’s need for philanthropy with the nonprofit’s budgetary shortcomings. They’ll prioritize what projects need money most. He also said the park has “contingency strategies” to fill any budgetary gaps for important programs affected by a reduction in the foundation’s cash contributions.

“Critical areas like wolf research, native fish ... no matter what happens with Yellowstone Forever we will continue to have those programs funded at the levels they have been,” Sholly said.

Sholly also said he has confidence in Walda and that he thinks he has the right set of skills to put Yellowstone Forever on the right path. Walda, who lives in Big Sky, Montana, is the former leader of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. He served on the board of the Yellowstone Park Foundation before the merger and has been a board member for Yellowstone Forever since its inception.

Walda has committed to serve as the interim CEO for a year, and he’s optimistic about what he can accomplish. He said there is some good news for Yellowstone Forever — bookstore revenue is up and so are online fundraising totals. He foresees a balanced budget under his watch, even with the baggage that predates him.

“We will be stable financially this fiscal year,” Walda said.

He said they expected a major revenue boost from the merger, and the organization was built on that assumption. When asked what the revenue projection was, Walda couldn’t say but indicated that projection would be available. Two days later, Wendie Carr, a Yellowstone Forever spokeswoman, said the organization could not say what the original revenue projection was.

In its public financial documents for fiscal year 2018, Yellowstone reported taking in roughly $15.8 million in revenue while spending about $17.4 million, resulting in a loss of $1.6 million. Walda could not give final numbers for fiscal year 2019 but said the organization raised about $18 million and would have a deficit of about $2 million.

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The organization’s total debt, according to Carr, is now at $4.35 million.

Critics of the organization see it as too top-heavy and saturated with highly paid executives. The 2018 financial documents show that pay for six of the top officials totaled more than $1 million, topping out at more than $286,000 for the former CEO, Heather White.

Walda said White was found by a national search firm, adding that the firm conducted a “comparability study which justified the salary she received.” He declined to comment on whether White would receive more money from the company after her resignation.

News of trouble within the organization has led some to question why the Yellowstone Forever board didn’t take action sooner. Walda said it’s not abnormal for a nonprofit to have a budget deficit — like when they buy inventory expecting to sell it. He also said it’s not unusual for a nonprofit to accrue debt, though he acknowledged that the organization had increased its borrowing.

He said it wasn’t clear there was a continuing problem with Yellowstone Forever’s finances until sometime late last fall or in early winter.

“I think we caught it at the time that it became a problem we had to deal with as a board,” Walda said.

He added that he doesn’t expect any changes in the organization’s board.

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