Since the 1960s, the National Park Service has partnered with nonprofit organizations to provide environmental education services to the public. But a recent audit from the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that some of these Residential Environmental Learning Centers have strayed from their original mission .
“What they are offering are wine tastings, yoga classes, chef-crafted meals, and destination weddings,” said Jeff Ruch, pacific director for the watchdog group Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility.
Ruch’s organization prompted the government audit after filing a complaint. The Office of the Inspector General discovered that some of these Residential Environmental Learning Centers were receiving free rent, utilities and maintenance services from the federal government.
Some centers also received thousands of dollars in taxpayer subsidies while offering expensive wedding packages – one of which cost $19,995 – a private hiking experience to a lighthouse with live music and $250 to $365 chef-crafted meals, silent auctions and refreshments.
11 centers across the country, including at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming, were reviewed in the report. Yellowstone Forever improperly received assistance with utilities from the park. Grand Teton failed to audit $9 million in program income from its center, the Teton Science School.
Most egregiously, the report found that significant profits garnered at centers in Washington State, Maine, Ohio and Indiana were not used to offset federal grant money.
“They are benefiting from their association to the park without providing anything back in return,” Ruch said.
The National Park Service also failed to provide proper oversight for these programs and the Office of the Inspector General made a dozen recommendations it said would help improve the situation.
“The National Park Service has reviewed the report and we are already implementing actions to address its recommendations, as noted by the Office of the Inspector General,” said National Park Service spokesman Michael Litterst. “We take these matters seriously and are working to ensure that our Residential Environment Learning Center agreements comply with statutes and regulations and with applicable policies."
Correction 9:56 a.m. MST 1/3/20: An earlier version of this story mis-referenced "Recreation Environmental Learning Centers." They are called Residential Environmental Learning Centers.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.