Today I am interviewing Karen Bates Kress, President of the Yellowstone Park Foundation.  Yellowstone National Park just completed construction of a LEED Gold Old Faithful Visitors Center. The Foundation played an important role in raising funds for the green and educational aspects of the project

.  While this is not a traditional public-private partnership, it is an interesting example of the private sector paying for certification on a public project.

Chris:  Thank you for your time today.  The Old Faithful Visitor Center was recently built in Yellowstone National Park and is both LEED Gold and touted as a public-private partnership. Is the Visitor Center a public-private partnership in the traditional sense? 

Karen: The Yellowstone Park Foundation is the official fundraising partner of Yellowstone National Park. As with other “friends groups,” like friends of your local library, we fund projects and programs that go above and beyond what is possible through the base budget of our government partner.  After covering our own operating expenses, all of the funds we raise are granted to Yellowstone. Since we are a non-profit, we don’t directly profit from the arrangement, other than to re-invest revenue back into protecting, preserving and enhancing Yellowstone.

Chris:  As a National Park Service project, what were your concerns in pursuing a public-private partnership?  Was there resistance to the idea of using the public-private partnership model?  How did you overcome any resistance?

Karen: Concerns from some people always occur in the sense that they believe that a facility like a visitor center should be paid for totally by the government. However, to achieve the margin of excellence with a LEED standard and high quality educational exhibits that exist with the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, private funding would have to be part of the equation.

Chris:  At both the state and federal level, politicians are struggling to find ways to fund major public works projects.  Do you think the public-private partnership model is a viable alternative? 

Karen:  If there is a cause in which members of the public believe, or a place in which members of the public feel a sense of ownership, then absolutely it is a viable alternative to depending on – or waiting for – full government funding.

In the case of Old Faithful, a new facility was desperately needed and the federal government was ready and willing to fund a new visitor center for this part of the Park that hosts close to three million visitors per year.  If the $12 million in government funds was all that was available, Yellowstone would have built a new visitor center but it would have been smaller, it would not have had the space or extra funds for educational exhibits, and it certainly would not have been Gold LEED certified.

Chris:  Do you think building a green building and seeking LEED Gold contributed to the success of the public-private partnership?

Karen: The aspiration toward Gold LEED certification was both an incentive for, and a product of, the corporate support we were able to secure for the building. Originally we were going for Silver LEED certification. At the time, even this was something new for a National Park Service building, and was attractive to corporations and other donors with a strong sense of environmental responsibility.  But then our partner Toyota (who had donated hybrid cars for Yellowstone) stepped in and said “why not Gold?”  They had built Gold-LEED certified headquarters in California and offered Yellowstone both the $1 million in additional funding, as well as consultation, we needed to go for the Gold.

Chris:  I have never been to Yellowstone but it is on my list of things to do.  What else should I know about Yellowstone and the Visitor Center before I make my trip? 

Karen: There is a lot to experience in Yellowstone, and it is huge, so it is hard to see the whole park in just a day or two.  The Park has incredible features such as geothermal, wildlife, geologic, historic, and cultural, so it’s best to know what you would like to focus on before you go. If you have limited time I would recommend choosing a couple areas and saving the others for your next trip. If you want to see animals, wildlife watching is best at dusk and shortly after dawn each day.  Also, most people never get too far away from their vehicles, so even during the peak summer season, hiking a couple of miles on a trail can offer solitude and a wonderful wilderness experience.

If you visit the Old Faithful area, plan to spend at least an hour at the Visitor Education Center.  The educational exhibits are hands-on and interactive, and present the science behind Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs in a way that is interesting and engaging for people of all ages.