Editor's note: This updates the story with comments from Ron Flint, who is behind the Xplore program.
A promotion announced late in December, one that pairs the National Park Foundation with a Toyota sport utility vehicle, seems at odds with part of the foundation's mission and the National Park Service's approach to climate change.
While no one doubts the national parks need more funds to accomplish their mission, how sensitive should the foundation be to partnering with corporations that might be well-intentioned, and who represent the consumer "tastes" of some higher income park users, but whose products don't reflect park values or the Park Service's missions?
The campaign mounted by Venchurs Inc., a company that provides after-market kit-packaging for the automotive industry, promotes the Xplore Adventure Series FJ Cruiser National Parks Edition.
The hulking SUVs, which normally carry price tags starting at about $24,000, and their implied off-road "adventure" mantra (sponsors of the promotion include the United Four Wheeled Drive Association and the BF Goodrich Outstanding Trails Program, which focuses on "some of the best off-road trails in North America"), don't immediately come to mind with either mileage-reducing efforts or treading light on the landscape.
FJs have Environmental Protection Agency mileage ratings ranging from 15-21 miles per gallon and a carbon footprint of 10.4-11 tons per year based on 15,000 miles of driving annually. The Xplore series offers the SUVs in four models, ranging from low-end models with little more than special-edition leather interiors to tricked-out rigs with "ARB winches, racks, rock-rails, suspensions, roof-top tents," and "expedition-grade upfits," including "snorkel" exhaust systems for driving through deep water.
On its face, the promotion -- which is designed to send a donations ranging from $50 to $300 and possibly more, depending on how many options are added to the package, to the National Park Foundation for every special edition FJ sold as well as the profit from an auction later this spring of the very first FJ in the series -- seems at odds with the foundation's role in supporting the national parks. As stated on the foundation's website, that role includes not only raising money for the parks but "(P)rotecting fragile ecosystems and wildlife habitats through conservation programs" and educating students on how climate change is affecting national parks and using what they learn to combat climate change at home.
David French, the foundation's vice president for marketing and communications, told the Traveler that the promotion was intended to nurture a "new set of supporters" for the national parks.
"We understand that park visitors and outdoor enthusiasts have a broad range of interests from hiking and camping to cycling and auto touring," he said. "Our hope is that through this limited, three-vehicle fund-raising auction a new set of supporters will be introduced to the parks. We do not believe this limited partnership mitigates the longstanding work the foundation has done for park preservation."
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who is secretary to the foundation's board of directors and who has called climate change "the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced," apparently was unaware of the promotion, according to agency officials who said the promotion was launched prematurely.
Park Service spokesman David Barna said, however, that it was hoped the promotion would attract new visitors to the national parks.
"We have many groups of visitors and park enthusiasts. This is a small promotion to reach another set of potential park visitors," Mr. Barna said early this month. "We have rules in place that determine how vehicles can be used in parks. This promotion does not mean that we approve of the inappropriate use of vehicles in parks."
The Park Service spokesman did not comment on whether the promotion was appropriate in light of the Park Service's mandate to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..." or in light of its approach to combat climate change by reducing the agency's carbon footprint.
A request for comment from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is honorary chairman of the foundation's board, went unanswered. However, the Interior Department on its web page on climate change maintains that, "We at Interior are taking the lead in protecting our nation's resources from (climate change) impacts and in managing our public lands to mitigate the effects of climate change."
In a press release announcing the program, Ron Flint, the Xplore program director, says the vehicles "are designed to deliver adventure for enthusiasts and families. You can't have one of these in your driveway and not be inspired to get out into the Great American Outdoors!"
On Tuesday, Mr. Flint said the idea behind the promotion was to raise dollars for the National Park Foundation and not to venture into the debate over climate change and resource impacts.
“The issue of carbon footprints, the issue of responibility for emissions, we’re not trying to fight that battle. Our position is that people are using cars today, whatever mode of transportation, whichever one they choose to use, be it diesel or whatever," he said from his California office. "I would say our vantage point and the perspective we have is we’re not trying ... our primary agenda isn’t the environmentalism. Our primary agenda is to get people to the national parks."
At the same time, Mr. Flint stressed that he hoped the program could be an educational tool that would instruct those who prefer these vehicles to use them appropriately in the national parks.
"So in the broadest sense, I guess maybe the best way to say it is this segment, an expedition-type off-road vehicle, for a certain amount of the population that would be very attractive," he said. "For another part of the population, they’re going to see it as the whole Hummer thing, which is tremendously inappropriate and represents all that’s wrong with the automobile. We’re trying hard not to fight that battle. What we’re trying to say is people use their cars to go to the national parks, let’s teach those people, or model by example, responsible behavior.”
Meanwhile, across the National Park System more and more parks are turning to solar energy and hybrid vehicles in their efforts to reduce their footprints.
Just recently officials at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument announced that, "(W)ith the acquisition of a surplus 2010 Chevrolet HHR, which replaced a full-size van, all of the park’s vehicles now have some degree of 'green' – the fleet now consists of three all-electric low speed, three gas-electric hybrid, and two E85 flexfuel vehicles."
And at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine officials say that "the park now utilizes 118 watts of clean solar energy compared to 700 watts of conventionally produced electricity" to illuminate the American flag that flies over Fort McHenry and which, by presidential proclamation, must fly day and night.