While corporate support can be vital to the health of national parks, whether to accept that support can be a challenging question, particularly in these times of financial stress and overall declines in charitable giving.
For instance, while the National Parks Conservation Association's underlying mission is to advocate and support the parks, officials there say you won't find them working towards those goals with, for example, companies that own coal-fired power plants that are responsible for airshed problems over places such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But relationships with companies such as Nature Valley, the granola bar maker that has committed upwards of $500,000 to the NPCA for six beneficial on-the-ground projects in places such as Acadia, Joshua Tree, and Yellowstone national parks, make great sense, they say. (Full disclosure: NPCA is a sponsor of the Traveler, and Nature Valley made it possible for the Traveler to attend the restoration project at Joshua Tree last month.)
"They were as concerned as we were about 'greenwashing,'" said Russell Hornbeck, NPCA's director of corporate partnerships, marketing and licensing. "And they wanted to make sure that the funding they were providing to us was going to meaningful work in support of our national parks. And that in turn is why we have these six projects that Nature Valley is funding."
What, You Say, Is Greenwashing?
"Greenwashing" is a term now a quarter-century old, one that was coined in response to the practice by hotels to place signs in rooms saying you could help the environment by not requesting clean towels every day of your stay. Apparently the real motivation was to cut costs on laundry detergent and thus improve the bottom-line. Over time, the term became a perjorative, frequently being attached to companies that, through public relations sleight-of-hand, projected an environmental concern that didn't really mesh with what they really were doing.
Sometimes discerning greenwashing might seem obvious. Remember a few years back when the chiefs of Detroit's three automakers, after being soundly criticized for taking their private jets to testify before Congress for bailout funds, later returned via hybrid vehicles?
But sometimes it might not be so cut and dried. Take the case of Plum Creek Timber Co., the country's largest private landowner. While Plum Creek is seen by some as a villian in northern Maine, where it wants to develop a landscape others are promoting for national park status, in Montana the company donates to and supports the work of the Glacier National Park Fund (more on that in a bit).
Nature Valley's support of the parks seems upfront and free of ulterior motives. True, they brought me and another freelance writer to Joshua Tree National Park on April 16 to kickoff National Park Week at a habitat restoration project it and the NPCA were hosting along with the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
Also on hand was Josh Holloway, one of the stars in the popular Lost television show brought in to help raise the event's profile. And there were T-shirts and goody bags for the volunteers who turned out to work on erasing a dirt road through 957 acres the land trust hopes to convey to the national park, a high-end freelance photographer to document the events, and a hearty BBQ afterwards.
While much higher in profile than the typical volunteer effort hosted by the land trust -- "We don't normally have a check-in table," Nancy Karl, the trust's executive director, joked with the roughly 50 volunteers who turned out -- Nature Valley itself had a relatively low profile.
Oh, everyone who wanted one went home with a box of granola bars and a Preserve the Parks T-shirt (I got the granola bars, passed on the shirt) and a curious-looking clutch purse made out of recycled granola bar wrappers. But the resulting media attention was minimal, if the smattering of results you get by Googling "Nature Valley" and "Joshua Tree" is any indication.
Perhaps the biggest boost -- in addition to the actual restoration work -- went to the Mojave Desert Land Trust. This small, four-staffer nonprofit works to "preserve the fragile ecosystems within the Mojave Desert" in a sprawling, 20-million-acre landscape ranging from the Mojave National Preserve on south to Joshua Tree's southern boundary.
"This sponsorship of an event increases the numbers. That is a high point, that we have so many people participating," said Ms. Karl. "From my chair, the exposure we get by having a national brand sponsor a restoration brings attention to the park, brings attention to the land trust's work."
Granola Bars And National Parks
At General Mills' corporate headquarters in Minnesota, the attention Nature Valley's campaign with NPCA brings to the national parks, as well as the actual restoration work being accomplished, are the goals officials hope to achieved.
"Nature Valley is acutely aware of the fact that our national parks, they’re facing all sorts of budgetary issues right now, and this is an opportunity for us to help out, assist national parks that are so important to us," replied Andrew Lainsbury, a marketing manager for General Mills, which owns the granola bar maker, when asked what motivated the company to partner with NPCA.
(Of course, the obvious tie of granola bars and park visitors isn't lost on Nature Valley either, he acknowledged. “I would say that we love to believe that people who are out in the national parks are eating our products.")
Indeed, it's that connection that made it easy for the company to decide to spend some of its philanthropic dollars -- General Mills donates roughly 5 percent of its pretax profits to charitable causes -- on national park-related causes, Mr. Lainsbury pointed out during a phone conversation.
“One of the reasons that we’re excited about it is not only because of the need, but it’s also something that is really tied into our brand DNA," he said. "Nature Valley is all about helping to encourage others to enjoy nature, and by getting out and enjoying nature and understanding the beauty of America’s national parks, we like to think that we’re helping to raise awareness and also to, hopefully, raise some funds for the national parks.”
Under the program with the NPCA, Nature Valley has guaranteed a $400,000 contribution to the park advocacy group, and will add up to another $100,000 when consumers enter online the UPC codes on specially marked boxes of granola bars that are expected to reach grocery stores this summer. To help promote the campaign, Nature Valley has created both a special website for the campaign and launched a Facebook page dedicated to the effort. So far more than 415,000 people have "liked" the site, and more than 3,300 park photographs have been uploaded to it.
The on-the-ground work started with the Joshua Tree event back on April 16, and now Nature Valley and NPCA are looking ahead to help build the Duck Brook Village connector trail at Acadia National Park; work on projects to protect and improve wetlands for wildlife and plant species at Biscayne National Park; launch projects to protect migration corridors for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park; do habitat restoration work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that will benefit endangered fish and other species, and; work to protect migrational routes for Yellowstone National Park pronghorn antelope.
Vetting Potential Partners
Back at the NPCA, Mr. Hornbeck said the nonprofit vets potential partners, such as Nature Valley, before agreeing to do business with them.
"In some form or fashion we’re going to support initiatives around national parks. But we have a very involved set of guidelines and review process for our corporate partnerships," he said.
When companies approach the NPCA, said Mr. Hornbeck, their proposals are reviewed both by the organization's president, Tom Kiernan, and members of the organization's executive team. If Mr. Kiernan "senses that there are some issues with the type of partnership or the partner in general, then he will take it to our board."
There are times when proposed partnerships obviously don't make sense, said Mr. Hornbeck.
"We will never enter into partnerships where there are issues," he explained. "Any organization that’s involved with lawsuits related to national parks or any organizations that we feel is doing harm to national parks. There’s some coal-fired power plants that we feel are putting dirty air into national parks, and so that’s an example of an organization or company that we wouldn’t want to work with."
Of course, there are cases when partnerships made with, or donations taken from, some companies might seem questionable. Why, for instance, did NPCA come to an arrangement with Arrowhead bottled water? After all, studies show bottled water is no better for you than most tap water and plastic bottles are a source of pollution.
“That was a very tough one for us, no question. Probably the toughest one that we grappled on and went back and forth," Mr. Hornbeck said of the Arrowhead arrangement. "Ultimately, in researching the company, seeing all their sustainability issues, ultimately I think our stance and position on bottled water is we support responsible use of bottled water.
"And then, we decided in part that they were as environmentally conscious as any bottled water organization in terms of they use less plastic in their bottled water than any other bottled water company, they have localized sourcing, so they have less of a carbon footprint in getting those bottles into stores and ultimately into people’s homes," he said.
The Nature Valley proposal was appealing, however, in large part because of the on-the-ground aspect of it, he said.
Villian, or Friend?
But what happens when Plum Creek comes calling with money in hand? In northern Maine the company has been trying to gain approval to develop a resort and residential area on nearly 17,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region that many would like to see become home to a Maine Woods National Park.
But in Montana, where the company owns more than 900,000 acres, it is a friend of the Glacier National Park Fund. Just the other day it presented the fund with $3,000 to "help support the Reconnecting Children with the Outdoors program in Glacier National Park."
"Connecting children (and adults) with nature today is directly related to developing their stewardship ethic so they will be willing to take action to care for parks, forests and nature tomorrow," fund officials said. "The fund has supported this Glacier program since 2009 by helping fund family workshops and adult professional workshops for those who work with youth."
Jane Ratzlaff, the fund's executive director, said Plum Creek "has been a great neighbor. They definitely have several programs that try to educate young people about preservation, and how important it is, and getting kids outdoors. They’ve definitely been a good neighbor, and a good supporter of ours.”
As does NPCA, Ms. Ratzlaff said her organization vets prospective partners and donors.
"We definitely want to make sure that corporations are walking the talk and educating people. I think more and more corporations are realizing that their habits haven’t been as great and are trying to look at ways of changing some of the things they’re doing," she said Friday.
"Like any large, large organization, it’s like a big moving ship that’s hard to change directions. But I think that there’s definitely been a lot of the spirit in management that wants to figure out how to be more helpful, and how you can balance the bottom line, what their stakeholders want as well as what’s best for the environment and for the public."
In the Columbia Falls, Montana, area, Plum Creek annually hosts a forest exposition. Last year it attracted roughly 4,000-5,000 kids who were involved in outdoor programs that touched on 'leaving no trace' and why it's important to protect and preserve places such as Glacier, Ms. Ratzlaff said.
While the country's current financial situation has left the National Park Service cash-strapped and in need of all the support it can get, public and private, that doesn't mean you'll see NPCA welcoming all comers in the cause of helping the parks, said Mr. Hornbeck.
“We’re just not out there taking money wherever we can get it. We certainly have a process in place," he said. "Like I’ve said, we’ve turned down some situations and others we debate back and forth. Hopefully we’re making all the right decisions.”