Think Out Loud

National Park Service to end contract with company managing Crater Lake facilities

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Feb. 23, 2024 7:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Feb. 26

A panorama view of Crater Lake on a sunny day with Wizard Island in the center.

Crater Lake, with Wizard Island center, is seen on July 17, 2021. Oregon's only national park is the deepest lake in the U.S.

Meagan Cuthill / OPB


The National Parks Service is planning to terminate its contract with Aramark, the company that manages lodging, food and other services at Crater Lake under the name Crater Lake Hospitality. The announcement comes after the company received the lowest possible annual rating from the park service last year. Since Aramark took over in 2018, annual reports have documented fuel leaks, sewer overflows, incomplete maintenance projects, food safety issues and more in the park. Unsafe and rodent-infested employee housing has also been a major concern.

Roman Battaglia has been covering this issue as a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He joins us with more details on what the reports show and what’s next for the park.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The National Park Service announced recently that it plans to terminate its contract with the company that manages lodging, food and other services at Crater Lake. Aramark operates at schools, hospitals, prisons and national parks around the country. Last year, the company received the lowest possible annual rating from the park service – that was after years of already substandard ratings. Problems include fuel leaks, sewer overflows, uncompleted maintenance projects, food safety issues and unsafe employee housing. Roman Battaglia is a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He has been covering this issue and he joins us now, Roman, welcome to the show.

Roman Battaglia: Thanks.

Miller: Can you explain, first, what a concessionaire - a company that gets one of these contracts - actually [does] at a national park?

Battaglia: Yeah, these concessionaires essentially provide most visitor services at national parks. Obviously, the park service manages the land itself. They provide law enforcement. You see the park rangers out there giving advice and stuff, but these concession companies offer everything else: food, they manage hotels and campgrounds, they operate gift shops, they run tours. Many national parks have these concession contracts. It’s kind of an effort to bring more visitors into the park by offering more amenities that the park service can’t do themselves.

Miller: How long has Aramark had this Crater Lake contract?

Battaglia: They have managed this park since late 2018. They took over from another company, Xanterra, which is another one of these concession companies. They had been running the park for about 15 years and received a lot of high ratings, but Aramark has taken over since then.

Miller: What other parks does Aramark manage in Oregon? Obviously, it’s our only national park, but other places in Oregon or around the country?

Battaglia: They actually manage quite a few national parks. In Oregon, specifically, they also manage the Oregon Caves National Monument, which is near the Oregon-California border, near Cave Junction. Actually, when Aramark signed this contract back in 2018, it was part of the park service’s effort to combine both of those contracts. So whoever manages the Oregon Caves also manages Crater Lake and vice versa.

But they manage – at least according to what I’ve seen – at least 13 other national parks across the country. That includes one’s people know, like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park in Washington. They manage all sorts of ones all across the country.

Miller: Some of the most iconic parks in the country, the ones that have the highest likelihood of being known across the world.

The National Park Service conducts an annual evaluation of these contracts and gives them a score. What have Aramark’s Crater Lake scores been like since they took over in late 2018?

Battaglia: They have not been that great. It seems like when I’ve been reading the reviews, the first one was from 2019, they did a bad job at taking over operations from the last operator.  There were a lot of employee issues and things like that.

Obviously, one thing to take into account is that the COVID-19 pandemic happened while they’ve been managing this park. So it sounds like they were kind of lenient during that time and acknowledged the issues, knew that there were things that were wrong, that were going wrong, but obviously the pandemic was happening, there weren’t as many visitors, so it was kind of, “Let’s give them a chance and see if they can do something better.”

But if we look at the reports right now, they’re rated on this four-tier scale and each according to a score from 0 to 100. If we look at them like school grades, they got a “D” in 2019 and then they got a bunch of “Cs,” and their latest report for this most recent - 2023 - was an “F.” So it’s been getting a little bit worse and worse over the years.

Miller: All right. So let’s turn to that “F,” the report from the most recent one. It mentioned the sewer overflow and diesel leaks. I mentioned those in my intro. Can you give us a sense for what this report outlines?

Battaglia: Oh, my gosh. It outlines a lot of different things.  Those diesel fuel spills were a significant part of it. There was this major incident last year, where at least 4,500 gallons of diesel spilled from this tank at the Crater Lake Lodge. Luckily, it spilled into this underground vault that’s designed to catch these spills. But according to the reports, Aramark had done nothing for five days while this diesel continued to spill out of this tank, didn’t notice it, didn’t do anything, and they also didn’t report it to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for weeks. The DEQ was not happy about this. They found a lot of failures to train maintenance staff, failures to do preventative maintenance on these tanks. They weren’t monitoring them enough, clearly, because they didn’t notice it for five days.


That sewage overflow was another issue. They found a lot of raw sewage leaking into a stream that heads out of Crater Lake and found that these traps that Aramark is supposed to maintain and keep up, they were not keeping those up. So there were a lot of failures on their part in terms of keeping things maintained, keeping an eye on stuff and actually taking care of it. That’s just some of the issues, but there’s lots of other things that they were doing wrong in terms of training staff, other environmental problems, not reporting fire safety code violations to the park service when they’re supposed to.

Miller: I want to hear about the staffing in just a bit. In fact, Erik Neumann, one of your colleagues at JPR, talked to a former employee at Crater Lake. What did he learn?

Battaglia: Yeah, he talked to Addie Massery. She was a seasonal worker and a server at the Crater Lake Lodge. She said she’s worked at a lot of different places at different parks, but the conditions here were just not good at all. I think her biggest concerns were the employee housing. It’s this kind of dorm-style place. The rooms, they were told were clean, when they were arriving, but then they found mouse droppings in the room and dirt all over and had to do a deep cleaning themselves. Some of the toilets weren’t working, there wasn’t privacy in the bathrooms like they were promised, garbage cans weren’t sealed and so animals would tip them over and take garbage all over the place. And she had told Eric that the building was condemned last year because of the conditions of it, which means they couldn’t charge employees to live there anymore.

There are also issues she talked about at the Crater Lake Lodge, like a lack of heat in rooms, which visitors would complain about a lot, and they didn’t have enough space heaters or blankets to pass around for people when things would get cold.

Miller: My understanding, though, is that housing was an issue before Aramark got this contract and that one of the stipulations in the contract was that they would improve housing. So it’s not just that they’re getting bad grades, but they’re not fulfilling what they said they would do?

Battaglia: Yeah, exactly. A major part of their contract was to renovate the employee dorm and make improvements to other buildings. Obviously, the dorm was a priority because of its state, and throughout these reports, you can see what happened with that. The company was really late to deliver plans to renovate the dorms back in 2021. They were returned multiple times for being poor quality or not meeting the park service standards. And the park service talked about their concerns in the 2022 report. They said they basically weren’t confident that Aramark could undertake a project like this, just because of how bad their early project plans were.

There were also other staffing and quality issues that they were concerned about when they were re-roofing the Crater Lake Lodge. They basically said that if Aramark can’t even do a project like this, how are they going to be able to renovate and do all of these other projects that they promised to do in their contract when they signed it back in 2018? They failed to provide timelines and plans, and the National Park Service had said that if you aren’t meeting this stuff, we’re gonna have to just let your contract expire in five years, like we said, and not renew it.

Miller: What has Aramark said about all this? And I should say, they’ve got something like 270,000 employees. They operate all over the country. Folks, I’m sure, have eaten their food or passed by their trucks taking stuff all across the country. It’s an enormous company. What have they said?

Battaglia: Yeah, they manage a lot of stuff, but we have really heard very little from Aramark. I’ve reached out to them multiple times and all I’ve gotten back from them is saying that “the challenges here aren’t indicative of our overall business operations,” and they say, “we continue to take steps to improve the conditions.” It’s kind of strange to me that they say that, considering according to their annual reports, conditions have only gotten worse in the last few years, they haven’t gotten better. So it certainly doesn’t seem like they’re improving things, but they’ve refused to discuss anything else about what’s going on there.

Miller: What has Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator Ron Wyden done about this issue?

Battaglia: He’s been concerned about this for months. He sent a letter to the National Park Service director about this. Obviously, Crater Lake is a really important treasure in Oregon. It’s our only National Park. And so he wanted to make sure that the park service is taking those steps to ensure that there aren’t impacts on visitors, and make sure he’s preventing further damage to the park, essentially. So I think he’s sent a lot of letters and put a lot of pressure on the director of the National Park Service.

Miller: Who actually is Chuck Sams, an Oregonian himself.

What has the park service itself done to try to fix things there, and to bring Aramark into compliance?

Battaglia: According to them, essentially one of their issues is they’ve spent a lot of extra staff time just to keep things in compliance and make sure everything is running smoothly, which in a perfect world, they shouldn’t have to. The whole point of these concessionary contracts is that Aramark manages everything, and the park service doesn’t have to do all of that stuff.

So they had to spend a lot of extra work. Last year, as the park was getting new tour boats delivered, Aramark didn’t file their permits on time. They didn’t have the details finalized for this. And this was a really big operation. They brought in these huge, heavy lift helicopters to put the boats into the lake and they needed a lot of permits and planning for that. Aramark really just wasn’t on the ball on this. So the park service has had to step in on that and on a bunch of other smaller occasions, like expediting water quality tests because Aramark was getting late about them. And sometimes park service staff have even had to man the tour boats because Aramark hasn’t had the staff to even operate those when they should be.

Miller: We have about a minute left, but is it clear what it would take for Aramark to maintain this contract?

Battaglia: Not really. The park service has basically said that they plan to terminate the contract unless Aramark can provide cause as to why they shouldn’t, and they haven’t really answered questions about what that means. So we don’t really know what. It’s hard to see how Aramark could really flip this around and change everything or explain how they have actually been making improvements, because all of this has been laid out in pages and pages of an annual report.

So unless they can really change something, I don’t see how they could stay, but we’ll see what happens next at that point. They’re going to try and transition to a short-term contractor to take over operations if this continues.

Miller: Roman, thanks very much.

Battaglia: Yeah, thanks.

Miller: Roman Battaglia is a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He joined us to talk about the many problems with the hospitality company Aramark, which has had, since 2018, the contract at Crater Lake National Park.

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