National Park Service To Seek Corporate Sponsorship Of Public Land

Earlier this month, the National Park Service, a federal environmental agency, said it will change its policies surrounding corporate sponsorship of public land--a decision that has aroused suspicion among environmental protection organizations.

The new plan makes wholesale changes to a couple of longstanding policies: NPS superintendents are now empowered to actively seek donation money from big corporate sponsors instead of passively accepting what comes the organization's way; barriers prohibiting alcohol and tobacco companies from park sponsorship have also now been lifted.

The proposed changes are currently open for public comment until December 1.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in his organization's comments that the federal agency has effectively removed "bright line prohibitions" and replaced them with "slippery, 'don't get caught' kind of standards."

Robert Smith, of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, is also weary of the "ambiguous language" of NPS' new policy. He worries that visitors could now be bombarded by brand images on the side of shuttle buses and over visitor's centers.



"One of the things that's different about parks is--they stand in contrast to daily life," said Smith. "If we go too far in that direction, we minimize the difference between our daily lives and what happens to us when we go to the park."

David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, maintains that this will not be the case. "You won't see any branding in the parks," he said flatly, but brand names will appear in the screen margins of computers in visitor kiosks or on plaques or tablets near benches and tables. He said sponsoring companies will also be able to use park images in their promotional materials.

"What changes more than anything is the tone," Barna said of the new order. He confirmed that the list of prohibitive sources had been removed to allow large corporations that "may have a beer company somewhere in their corporate structure" to purchase sponsorships.

According to Barna, the decision to change the policy wasn't driven by anyone "who wanted to knock on the door," either. "These are career superintendents who are very protective of the parks' integrity," he said.

However, the decision to change the policy does seem to have come from the top--the very top. According to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, NPS Director Fran Mainella set down the order that park superintendents, regional directors, and managers would be "screened" at top levels of the Department of the Interior to ensure their compliance with the President's Management Agenda, which called for--among other things--the active solicitation of corporate donations to plug holes in NPS' insufficient funding.

In the wake of several high-profile corporate funding scandals in Washington, protectionists worry that such large-scale funding only invites trouble. PEER's Ruch fears that the new rules could tempt regional park managers into reckless deals with powerful companies that could compromise the integrity of the parks. "It is inherently troublesome for any federal agency to seek funds from businesses seeking concessions from it," he said. "Will any place be off-limits to the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's arches?"

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