The headline in The Washington Post was provocative: “Yosemite, sponsored by Starbucks? National Parks to start selling some naming rights.” The story included a quote from Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: “You could use Old Faithful to pitch Viagra, “Or the Lincoln Memorial to plug hemorrhoid cream. Or Victoria’s Secret to plug the Statue of Liberty.”
On the eve of its 100th anniversary, was the cash-strapped National Park Service really going to start selling naming rights to the highest bidders?
Within hours, the Washington Post story was picked up by Quartz, Jezebel, and Raw Story, which had fun with the idea of renaming the National Parks. Some of their suggestions: “Arches National Park, brought to you by Dr. Scholl’s” and “National Bison Range, brought to you by Buffalo Wild Wings.”
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There was only one problem: It’s not quite true. According to the National Park Service, the sponsoring of parks is not an option.
In March, Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, announced a proposed revision to its philanthropy policy that would allow it to begin recognizing donors by offering temporary naming rights to some park buildings and allowing companies to discretely add their logos to temporary signage, printed materials, interpretive exhibits, and digital media.
Until now, the park service has not recognized any of its big philanthropic donations inside the parks. Under the NPS proposal, company logos would only be permitted on temporary, freestanding signage and printed materials, like brochures, newsletters, posters, and banners. In some circumstances, park vehicles would also be emblazoned with a corporate donor’s logo.
The revised policy will “make it possible for parks to do something for donors that you might find in a university or museum. They’re looking for a tasteful way to recognize donors,” says Dan Puskar, the executive director of the Public Lands Alliance, a group of non-profits that support individual monuments and parks across the U.S. “I think it’s a really good thing.”
The changes to the fundraising policy come as the National Park Foundation embarks an on ambitious $350 million fundraising campaign for NPS’s centennial year. The Post story suggested that the NPS is on a dangerous path, aggressively seeking corporate donations but must do so “without giving the impression that it’s selling public places to the highest bidder.”
But the NPS says its policy is quite clear.
“Donor recognition cannot state or imply naming rights to any park in the National Park system or any National Park Service facility, historic structure, or feature,” says Jeff Reinbold, the National Park Service’s assistant director for partnerships and civic engagement. “Donor recognition cannot incorporate advertising, a marketing slogan or tagline.”
He also explained that credit lines and corporate logos of donors would not be on any fixed items, such as donor recognition plaques, paving stones, or park furnishings.
Critics of the move, such as Ruch, are fearful of the commercialization of America’s greatest natural resource. But Reinbold says corporate donors aren’t clamoring to have their names plastered all over the place. Quite the contrary. They have been “insistent that it hurts their brand to be associated with the commercialization of National Parks or any other action that can be seen as taking advantage of National Parks,” he said.
According to the NPS, private donations received by the National Park Foundation account for only 9% of the parks system’s annual operating expenses. For 2016, the budget set by Congress is $2.85 billion, but the National Park Service says it has a backlog of nearly $12 billion worth of much-needed repairs, over half of which are related to transportation costs and maintenance to roads and bridges within its 84 million acres. Last year the National Park Foundation received only $80 million from private donors.
As National Park Foundation president and CEO Will Shafroth told the Washington Post, “The parks don’t have enough money to accomplish their goals.” Private and corporate donations are needed to fill the gaps.
The revised policy will be enacted by the end of the year, but the proposal is still in its review phase, which means the public can read it and send comments by May 16th.