What role should the National Park Service play in promoting businesses that make a living off national parks? That's a potentially thorny question. On one hand, visitors coming from far off might want such information to help plan their trips. On the other, is the Park Service giving away free advertising and adding an appropriate commercial bent to its websites and press releases?
This question comes up in light of recent efforts by the Park Service to give more visibility to gateway communities, concessionaires, and outfitters that have permits to operate in the parks. Earlier this year the National Parks Hospitality Association, which describes itself as "the national trade association of the businesses that provide lodging, food services, gifts and souvenirs, equipment rentals, transportation and other visitor services in the National Park System," wrote acting-National Park Service Director Dan Wenk with a request for such visibility.
Derrick Crandall represents several organizations seeking more access to national parks. As counselor for the hospitality association, back in March he wrote a letter to Mr. Wenk stating that association members "believe that the decline in park visitation is detrimental to the nation, to the agency, to gateway communities, and to NPHA members. We are especially concerned by the potential for further significant decline in 2009 visitation as a result of the current economic crisis."
To address those concerns, Mr. Crandall continued, one of several ideas the NPHA had was to create "improvements in, and/or development of new, websites designed to help potential visitors better understand activities available in and around national park units, including concessioner-provided services, as well as lodging and accommodations in and around specific park units. Current websites are generally ineffective."
Other suggestions touched on better promotion of the national parks, better promotion of special events, "and regional or park-specific promotion and outreach opportunities."
In response, Mr. Wenk agreed that the Park Service's many websites need to be improved and that more individual parks need to take advantage of "NPS regulations on advertisements and advertising ... which allow us to make information on these services available to visitors."
Specifically, those regulations state that:
Commercial notices or advertisements shall not be displayed, posted, or distributed on federally owned or controlled lands within a park area unless prior written permission has been given by the Superintendent.
Such permission may be granted only if the notice or advertisement is of goods, services, or facilities available within the park area and such notices and advertisements are found by the Superintendent to be desirable and necessary for the convenience and guidance of the public.
But...how many advertisements might a superintendent deem to be "desirable and necessary for the convenience and guidance of the public"? In many parks with lodgings, rooms can be hard to find in the high summer season. Should the Park Service sites provide information on hotels and motels in gateway communities, as that information surely would be convenient to the public. And actually, a recent releases from Yellowstone National Park are proof that the Park Service believes it, too, should be promoting those gateway communities right along with the in-park concessionaires. Here's what was tagged onto the bottom of one such release:
Reservations and information on in-park campgrounds and lodging is available by contacting Xanterra Parks & Resorts at 866-GEYSERLAND or online at http://www.travelyellowstone.com. Information on lodging, camping, services, and activities near the park in the Montana communities of Gardiner, West Yellowstone, and Cooke City, is available by contacting their respective Chambers of Commerce or from Travel Montana at 800-847-4868 or http://visitmt.com/.
Is the National Park Service turning into one big chamber of commerce?
Since the Internet has made information gathering so simple (try searching the Internet for "national park lodging" and see how many hits you get in a nano-second), should the Park Service take a black-and-white approach and strip away all these links to businesses and focus its websites on exploring and explaining the parks?
Does this practice conflict with the agency's Director's Order 21 (attached below), which was crafted to apply to how park donors might be recognized inside the parks, but also has this sentence: NPS employees are also subject to ethics regulations which generally prohibit federal employees from using their official title, position, or any authority associated with their public office to endorse products, services or enterprises.
Here's another seemingly pertinent section from Director's Order 21:
Advertising or solicitation for corporate campaigns involving the promotion of specific brands, products, services or enterprises of a corporate partner or associated entity may not be conducted within national park units in order to maintain the long-standing policy of the NPS that parks not be commercialized.
Does listing of permitted businesses reflect an endorsement of these businesses or commercialization of the parks?
If recognizing businesses that operate in the parks is here to stay, should parks list that information before listing visitor information regarding activities in the park? That's how the Yellowstone National Park website handles it.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash doesn't see anything unusual with the listing order, saying "...there is nothing new about us providing information about services available to visitors to Yellowstone National Park - whether offered by the NPS or by a concessioner or under a business permit ..."
David Barna, the Park Service's chief spokesman in Washington, D.C., had this to say about the listing of businesses on park websites:
"I don't think you can really call it advertising. The problem is that in the past if you wanted to visit Shenandoah and stay at Big Meadows Lodge, you could not get there and make hotel reservations from the NPS web site. That doesn't make sense," said Mr. Barna. "So we hope to link to our concessioners from our web site. These are properties owned by Americans and cared for by NPS, so they should be able to make a room reservation at these places through us."
If the Park Service is comfortable with promoting these businesses on its websites, will it be long before it allows more visible advertising in the parks themselves?
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade doesn't have any problems with the listing of permitted businesses, although he did question why they were listed above links to park activities on Yellowstone's website.
"I assume this practice will be limited to those business entities with which the NPS has a contractual arrangement (as concessioners). As such, those business are operating at the invitation of the NPS to provide visitor services," said Mr. Wade. "So, it seems to me that such advertising can be considered an extension of the NPS's responsibility to provide services to visitors and is not inappropriate."
There is no denying that concessionaires, outfitters, and gateway communities provide both services to park visitors and support for the national parks. But is the Park Service, by so actively moving to promote these businesses, stepping over the line for a government agency? Is there any other way that the agency could provide this information in a less overt way, one that doesn't imply agency endorsement of these businesses? Or should the agency take the next obvious step, be more business savvy as former NPS Director Mary Bomar said it should be, and come right out and sell advertising on its pages to businesses that operate in the parks?