Why do Interior Secretary Gale Norton and National Park Service Director Fran Mainella want to find ways to sell more sponsorships to the national parks? I mean, I think it's great that corporate America, and individuals as well, donate to the parks. I do every year.
But there are subtle, underlying problems that could arise if the Park Service's sponsorship program is not carefully handled. One concern is that parks will become, to a certain extent, corporate billboards. As someone put it recently, I thought our national parks were a "commercial-free zone."
Some fear "Director's Order 21," which outlines the new fund-raising guidelines, could bring references to tobacco and alcohol companies into the parks, and result in corporate names being affixed to structures. This very easily could be alarmist thinking. Secretary Norton has said any sponsorship recognition should be handled carefully.
Frankly, while Director Mainella says her order is intended to clarify fund-raising guidelines, at times it muddles the picture by using subjective phrasing. For instance, in talking about in-park displays she says, "when in-park displays are deemed appropriate, tasteful and unobtrusive signs, plaques or other treatments may be used."
Well, who will determine the appropriateness, tastefulness and unobtrusiveness? That's a legitimate question when you consider that some in the Interior Department would like to see more motorized recreation in the parks. And, this new wording drops an incredibly significant word from the current policy on displays: temporary.
Another concern is, who will be charged with seeking out sponsorships?
Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan tells me his staff is going through the proposed order -- which is open for public comment until December 5th -- to make sure they understand exactly what Director Mainella is proposing.
"There are concerns on having, what appear to be, superintendents now out there doing direct fund-raising for the parks," he told me. "If that's a correct read -- that's how we're reading the proposed version of the director's order -- that's problematic because suddenly we have superintendents who are supposed to be responsible for protecting the resources and ensuring a good visitor experience now becoming chief fund-raiser for their park, running around to companies and individuals with hat in hand.
"That's at a minimum a distraction but also creates, potentially, a conflict of interest or some confusion about roles and responsibilities."
Mr. Kiernan also has some worries over how sponsors will be noted in the parks. "We've got some concerns about what appear to be enhanced, much more visible, commemorations of gifts, whether it's, for example, permanent naming rights for rooms and how visible logos are going to be."
There's a greater underlying concern as well. How far should the National Park Service go in fund-raising? Should it strive to support its entire budget -- which was a requested $2.361 billion for fiscal year 2005 -- through private funds? I don't think so. That would put an incredible burden on the Park Service, one I don't think it could overcome.
Already a tremendous amount of money is being donated to the parks. According to the National Park Service's partnership office, the 150 Friends Groups scattered around the country that are affiliated with 160 parks raise $17 million annually. Another 65 Cooperating Associations, which have more than 1,000 sales outlets, chip in $26 million.
The 122,000 folks who participate in the "Volunteers in Parks" program provide 4.5 million hours of service a year that is valued at $77 million. And the National Park Foundation, which takes in grants and bequests for the Park Service and also has its successful Proud Partners program that involves corporate donors, generates $31 million for the park system.
At the NPCA, Mr. Kiernan does not want Congress to think an increase in these types of private donations should lessen the government's investment in the parks.
"If there are to be fee increases, if there is going to be increased philanthropic support for the parks, through Director's Order 21 changes or what have you, there has got to be a matching proportionate increase in congressional support for the parks," he says. "There has been, over the history of the Park Service, a partnership between the private sector and the public sector in building and managing and funding our national parks, and we've got to keep, if you will, that ratio of public and private support.
"If the public has a sense that their philanthropic support or fee revenue was leading to reduced congressional funding for the parks, that would be hugely damaging to the long-term support the parks would garner from the public," Mr. Kiernan adds. "This needs to be a partnership. The support needs to be increased both on the philanthropic side and the fee side and the public side. It has got to be done in tandem."
I wholly agree. And I hope Director's Order 21 doesn't lead to the mass production of hundreds of sponsorship plaques that will clutter the walls of visitor centers or other park facilities. I don't think many of the corporate sponsors want that, either.
Not too long ago in Glacier National Park the famous fleet of 33 Red Jammer tour buses was in a horrible state of disrepair. Fortunately, the Ford Motor Co. stepped up in 2000, became part of the National Park Foundation's "Proud Partner of America's National Parks" program, and contributed $4.5 million to underwrite the cost of rebuilding those gorgeous buses that originally were built by the White Motor Co.
Ford's staff didn't want any big celebration commemorating their valuable contribution. In the end, the Park Service's Intermountain Region presented Ford officials with a "partnership award" that rumor has it is displayed in Bill Ford's Michigan office, and the company was allowed to mount a small "Ford" logo above the White Motor Co. logo on the grill of each bus.
An earlier park philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent roughly $25 million of his own wealth on national parks. He personally provided the land that today comprises the bulk of Grand Teton National Park, led the way to create the carriage paths that wind through Acadia National Park, and contributed greatly to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park and Yosemite National Park.
Yet I don't ever recall reading about him demanding that his name be affixed to anything.
True, the Park Service did create the nearly 24,000-acre John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway between Grand Teton and Yellowstone in 1972 to honor Rockefeller, who died in 1960. But he probably would have lobbied hard against the honor. In 1941, during a radio broadcast on behalf of the USO and the National War Fund, Rockefeller recited a lengthy set of principles that guided his life. Among the list was the following:
"I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatest of the human soul set free."
I wonder if that quote could be worked into Director's Order 21?