01 Jun Trails for Sale: Should Corporate Sponsorship Be Condoned?
On Saturday, June 6, 2015, the American Hiking Society—an organization that promotes and protects foot trails, their surrounding natural areas and the hiking experience—would like you to walk, bike, watch birds, go geocaching, horseback ride or even paddle along one of our national or state trails in celebration and support of its National Trails Day. The society is hoping that close to a million outdoor enthusiasts will flock to their favorite paths to participate in dedications, educational exhibits, gear demonstrations, instructional workshops and trail maintenance projects.
Trails and our state and national parks go hand in hand. They allow those of us who aren’t physically capable of (or willing to go) bushwhacking through the wild countryside in our most beautiful protected areas a means of exploring them. And by providing a safe course to follow (such as the accessible boardwalk through Cook’s Meadow in Yosemite National Park), they keep us from trampling over sensitive plants or inadvertently stumbling into delicate or dangerous wildlife habitats.
Almost everyone knows of at least one enticing and entrancing nearby trail, and National Trails Day gives us the opportunity to acknowledge those constructs and the trail crews and volunteers who make a lot of our pleasant treks possible.
But would your experience of the outdoors feel the same if instead of sauntering along the “John Muir Trail” or meandering the “Fern Forest Loop” you had to set out upon the “Wal-Mart Walkway” or the “Donald Trump Track”?
Giving away naming rights
Such a scenario is not that far-fetched.
Next year, the National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its 100th anniversary. In order to find sufficient funds to spruce up its properties for the commemoration, the NPS declared on May 1, 2015, that it had waived its policy prohibiting partnerships with alcohol makers. Shortly afterward, the service announced that it had made a two-year, $2.5 million deal with the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Bush. As part of the contract, some parks will become the sites of Budweiser-branded events, such as summer concerts.
No one can deny that as federal budgets tighten and park visitation climbs, finding creative means for funding our parks is going to be needed. Last year, the National Park Service suggested increases in visitor entrance fees to help pay for an $11.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. At the end of 2014, Congress’ National Park System Donor Acknowledgment Act encouraged the park service to pursue private funding, allowing donor recognition for official sponsors and even “naming rights to any unit of the National Park System or a National Park System facility, including a visitor center.”
Kowtowing to corporate demands
Some, however, feel that the Anheuser-Bush agreement was the wrong tack to take. Before May 1, 2015, such a deal would have been contrary to NPS policy. In 2008, Director’s Order 21: Donations and Fundraising specifically stated that “corporate campaigns must be conducted with high standards that maintain the integrity of the NPS and its partners. Corporate campaigns which identify the NPS with alcohol or tobacco products will not be authorized.” Those critical of the new waiver say that it signals the park service’s willingness to change its management principles to accommodate the wishes of corporate sponsors—which may or may not be in line with the best interests of the general public or the wildlife within the parks.
On the other hand, agreements with corporations have proved to generate a lot of money for the parks. In 2010, when officials at Grand Canyon National Park announced that vendors would be prohibited from selling water in the park in order to significantly cut waste—and instead there would be refilling stations for reusable bottles—Coca-Cola, which distributes Dasani bottled water, complained about the move to the National Park Foundation (the nonprofit that channels support from companies and donors to parks). Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis then blocked the proposed ban. Coca-Cola, so far, has donated more than $13 million to parks. And in 2012, a deal allowed a California vintner to sell “national park wines.” Sales of that beverage through 2014 earned the National Parks Foundation $78,000.
State parks are facing similar challenges. In Wisconsin, where I live, for example, Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal removes all state funding for operating the park system—this, although more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they don’t want parks to have to sell naming rights to survive. Parks in the state of Virginia have already partnered with North Face to put the activewear retailer’s logo on trail signs.
I think we all understand that our national parks need money to operate, and if our government continues to cut funding, they will have to explore other options. I’m just not sure I’m ready to walk into my local park and see a big sign that reads “this bit of nature is brought to you by Costco.”
But without such deals, perhaps there would be no signs—or trails—at all.
Do you think the National Park Service should partner with private corporations to raise funds in exchange for naming rights and branded events? Would the presence of more corporate sponsors in the parks spoil your outdoor experience?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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