AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS WILL TURN 100 years old this August. The parks, famously called by author Wallace Stegner “America’s best idea,” have been one of the nation’s most important tools for preserving its stunning wilderness, and for providing a place where US citizens can get in touch with nature. They’ve also been a rare place free of advertising.
That era might be coming to an end. Despite the importance of the parks to our national heritage, they have long been underfunded, relying on private donors and philanthropists to make up whatever money they haven’t received from a stingy federal government. One obvious place to get the money would be from corporate donations, but corporations tend to not give money if they don’t get something in return, and the National Parks have long been resistant to allowing any sort of advertisement in the parks themselves.
But the lack of money coming into the parks — and the sheer amount of money that could be coming in from corporations — have made the Parks consider a change.
Jonathan Jarvis, the Director of the National Parks Service, is loosening the rules on corporate donations. To be extremely clear, advertising and slogans will still not be allowed in the Parks, but the rules will allow the prominent display of corporate logos. And while there will be no sales of naming rights to landmarks or monuments (i.e. Paypal presents Mount Rushmore), there will be sales of the naming rights to certain park facilities.
A lot of people are concerned about this development — they worry that the Parks will become yet another crass vehicle for corporate marketing, or worse, that corporate sponsors will attempt to interfere with park policies. And to be fair, this was already a problem. In 2011, the Parks started banning the sales of bottled beverages in parks in order to reduce plastic pollution. At the Grand Canyon, Coca-Cola, which was at that point a large donor, expressed concern about the policy, which nearly halted the ban. It did eventually go into effect, but it was a worrisome signal — that corporate interests could be put above the overall interests of the parks and of the environment.
But the managers of the parks are in a tricky spot. There’s an $11 billion backlog in maintenance projects alone, and Congress isn’t providing adequate funding. So the National Parks Service is being forced to choose between letting the parks slowly fall apart, or slowly succumbing to corporate sponsorship which may, in the long run, be just as damaging.
The clear solution would be for Congress to recognize that the National Parks are worth funding adequately. But unless that happens, our Parks are going to slowly, inevitably, become just another place for corporate America to stick its billboards.