Beware creeping corporate influence on national parks

 Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah.


Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah.

I recently was lucky enough to travel to several national parks and national monuments in the Southwest, including Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and all five parks in Utah. We were awash in nature, beauty, and Native American culture.

Everyone loves the national parks. For many, they are central to a beloved memory of a family vacation. Kids love to be sworn in as “junior rangers.” Heck, former first lady Laura Bush and daughter Jenna Bush Hager just came out with a new kids book, Our Great Big Backyard. And the closure of national parks during a government shutdown always produces the most outrage.

It would be a shame to be forced to slap a corporate sponsorship on what has been described as “America’s best idea.” Yet unless Congress comes through with needed funds to fix up to $12 billion in deferred maintenance, that might be the next step.

This country has 58 national parks, 82 national monuments, 78 national historic sites, 50 historic parks, 30 national memorials, and a host of other designations such as national battlefields, national preserves, national recreation areas, national seashores, and many more. There are 411 sites and areas in all that fall under the National Park Service. The entire system includes 84 million acres.

The NPS employs about 22,000 people as full-time, temporary, and seasonal workers. If that doesn’t sound like many, consider that there are also 221,000 volunteers in national parks. Rangers—the ones in the Smokey Bear hats—don’t earn big salaries, but nearly everyone working at national parks makes at least $15 per hour. The median salary for park rangers is $54,000 a year.

FiveThirtyEight, quoting a slew of NPS statistics, recently ran a story on the popularity of national parks and some possibilities for the reasons for increased attendance. The price of gas is down. When weather is good, people like to get outdoors. Parks are great for exercise.

More than 300 million people from all around the world visited national parks in 2015, which was 14 million more than in 2014. In the year of the centennial celebration of the NPS, which was first signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, attendance in 2016 is projected to be even higher. On our trip, we heard so many different languages being spoken that I lost count. We met visitors from all over Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as from all over the U.S. It wasn’t yet the high season of summer, and places were full.

And the parks are still a bargain. All parks offer free admission on Martin Luther King Day in January, National Public Lands Day in September, and Veterans Day in November. April 16-24 was National Park Week (free), and there will be another free period Aug. 25-28 to celebrate the National Park Service birthday. Free annual passes are available to any fourth grade student—and their families—through the Every Kid in a Park program. Active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability also get free passes. If you’re 62 or older, you can get a senior lifetime pass for only $10. That’s for the senior and everyone else in the car.

All of those visitors help the nearby area’s local businesses, too. Every federal dollar invested in the national parks yields nearly $10 in economic activity. “The national parks support nearly 250,000 private-sector jobs and $27 billion in economic activity annually,” says the U.S. Travel Association.

But that activity comes at a practical cost. All those visitors create wear and tear on such a valuable resource. As the travel association puts it:

The quality of the visitor experience depends on the capacity to keep parks open, trails maintained, and visitor centers staffed. Budget cuts in recent years have shortened park hours, reduced the number of rangers, and deferred park operations and maintenance. We need basic federal investment to protect park resources and the countless local economies that depend on them. …
The National Park System’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and transit services are in desperate need of repair. Transportation facilities located on or operating in national parks are federal facilities and depend on federal transportation funding. Because of chronic underfunding, transportation projects now comprise more than half of the nearly $12 billion parks maintenance backlog.

As part of his 2017 budget request (which Congress, naturally, ignored), President Obama sought $13.4 billion for the Interior Dept., including $860 million to repair and upgrade the parks as part of the national parks budget. The monetary request would “fund restoration and maintenance projects in the parks over the next 10 years,” according to a story from Huffington Post. That’s still only a small piece of what’s needed.

Due to the lack of full funding from Congress, half of the necessary work is upgrading paved roads and structures that haven’t received regular maintenance. The price of the giant backlog is $440 million more than it was in 2014, and it is the highest it’s ever been.

The lack of congressional action notwithstanding, there are other ways to find funds but which are drawing some controversy. With a proposed new policy, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis are tapping into corporate funds as part of a $135 million matching grant program to pay for underfunded conservation work. According to another story from Huffington Post, retailer The North Face is providing $25,000 each to four citizen conservation corps across the country. “The corps enlist high school and college students, as well as veterans and other older volunteers, in conservation projects in national parks and other public lands, doing work like maintaining trails and removing invasive species,” the story says. For her part, Jewell says it’s part of a broader effort to get young people “doing service on public lands.”

North Face isn’t the only corporation involved. “American Eagle Outfitters, CamelBak and the Coca-Cola Foundation have also supported the programming,” the story says. “Jewell said the agency is about halfway to its $20 million goal for private and corporate fundraising.”

American Express, through a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Partnership and National Geographic, is offering $2 million to five parks to fund needed restoration. You can vote for the five projects you think are the most worthwhile at VoteYourPark.org. You can vote once per day until July 5.

At our trip to Zion National Park, one of the rangers practically begged us to vote for Zion in that online survey to fix a tunnel with a roof damaged by a semi. He knew the money wasn’t coming from anywhere else.

But in some circles, there is objection to any corporate involvement. CREDO Action has an ongoing petition asking potential signers to “keep corporate sponsorship out of our parks,” and it has more than 75 percent of the 150,000 signatures sought. According to a story from Mother Jones, some lawmakers, such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski “suggest that privatizing parks and outsourcing funding may shift the burden of maintaining the parks away from taxpayers.”

National parks have always benefited from private contributions. The National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks and the nonprofit partner to the National Park Service, already accepts donations from individuals and corporations. It was chartered by Congress in 1967 and is able to raise more money than the dollar bills thrown into the glass boxes that serve as the equivalent of “tip jars” at many national park locations. As the Huffington Post story says:

Kristen Brengel, senior director for legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, said there are always “lingering concerns” about corporate funding for parks and conservation. “We don’t want basic operations to be covered by private dollars. That doesn’t give Congress the incentive to fund parks adequately,” she said. But those private funds are “essential,” she said, especially for programs like the conservation corps.

“A lot of times those are the first thing that gets cut from budgets,” said Brengel.

So what’s the balance? No one wants to see a sign welcoming visitors to “McDonald’s Mammoth Cave” or “Yum! Yosemite.” Or, heaven forbid, “Trump Grand Teton.” But with loosened regulations, according to a story in the Washington Post, some naming rights are on the table.

A Coca-Cola Visitor Center will still be off-limits, but an auditorium at Yosemite National Park named after Coke will now be permitted. Naming rights to roads are not up for grabs, but visitors could tour Bryce Canyon in a bus wrapped in the Michelin Man.

And parkgoers could sit on a bench named for Humana health insurance — and store their food in a bear-proof locker emblazoned with the Nike swoosh. …

The Park Service still won’t recognize donors with advertising or marketing slogans. But for the first time, their logos will get prominent display. Companies will be able to earmark gifts for recurring park expenses, which was prohibited before. …

Bricks or paving stones on the steps to a visitor center, video screens inside, educational, interpretive, research, recreation, and youth programs, positions or endowments — these also will get naming rights, according to the proposed policy. There could be walls in visitor centers dedicated to donors, or digital ones, as fundraising is beefed up through crowdsourcing and other online strategies to reach the public.

For the record, we saw no corporate infringement at the seven parks and two national monuments we visited. I would have no objection to a small plaque thanking a sponsor, whether it was a private citizen or a company, for fixing something that needs it, like the tunnel at Zion. I also would not object to a wall in a visitor center with names of donors—the same kind of wall you see at a hospital or other nonprofit entity that must rely on private donations. Visitor centers are man-made structures and not part of the greater natural expanse.

We also saw evidence of work not done, such as trails that needed more upkeep, potholes in roads, and brush that needed clearing. As the Post story says:

“Our needs are astronomic,” said Will Shafroth, president and chief executive of the National Park Foundation, the Park Service’s fundraising arm. “The parks don’t have enough money to accomplish their goals.”

This is particularly true at smaller parks that often get less attention from donors, even with fundraising by active “friends” groups, he said. So to increase giving, park superintendents are being asked to play new roles as fundraisers, among the biggest and most controversial changes in the new policy.

According to an opinion piece in the Observer, a group of retired, former, and current NPS employees called the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has entered the fight to keep out too much corporate influence. They have outlined the concerns they have with the new philanthropic partnership proposal. They also object to proposals for nearby energy expansion such as an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Audrey Peterman, founder of the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau, called the new policy a “slippery slope.”

As President Theodore Roosevelt said about national parks:

Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.

It’s past time for Congress to come through. The economic boost to local communities is worth it. Let’s keep our parks as “natural wonders.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos June 12, 2016.

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