What symbolic role should America's national parks play in promoting environmental stewardship and sustainability in front of hundreds of millions of visitors a year?
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is determined to rid plastic bottles from the national parks, but wants to consider all factors before doing so, the agency's communications chief said today while addressing the uproar over the director's decision to put a hold on a water bottle ban at Grand Canyon National Park.
“Jon Jarvis wants to get rid of water bottles in parks. That’s the goal. We want to do this," David Barna said. "The issue with Grand Canyon is it’s such a big park and it sets such a big precedent."
The issue, though, has taken on the appearance of dollars and cents, the dollars being those made by concessionaires and bottling companies and even those donated to the National Park Foundation. It also has led to a petition drive on change.org, where more than 94,000 people have signed a petition in support of a ban.
Internal Park Service documents (see attachments) obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility seem to indicate that corporate dollars played a larger role in the director's decision than concerns over visitor safety and the Park Service's intent to be a national leader in sustainability, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
That impression was driven home in an email PEER obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In it Director Jarvis wrote that while he was supportive in general of the initiative, “there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts.”
Mr. Barna this morning, while acknowledging the appearance of that email, maintained that financial considerations never played a role in the director's decision to put a hold on the ban of plastic water bottles at Grand Canyon.
“The issue for him was never about money. It’s not enough money to influence anybody. We’re talking about probably less than $100,000 a year from Coke. This is a $3 billion agency," the Park Service spokesman said, explaining that the $100,000 figure was tied to the bottling giant's contributions to help establish a recycling operation on the National Mall.
National Park Foundation officials did not immediately respond to a request this morning for comment on their role in the matter.
At PEER, Mr. Ruch maintained today that the internal Park Service documents demonstrate the director was acting in response to Coke's concerns and nothing else.
“I know he’s pulling the plug” on bottles at the Grand Canyon based on Coke’s displeasure, Mr. Ruch said, adding that the bottling industry was guiding Park Service policy.
To that end he cited a June 2011 email from Jo Pendry, the Park Service's commercial services chief, in which she wrote, "...the Director's view is NOT to ban sale of bottled water, but to go the choice route." "Choice" being that the Park Service provide visitors with a choice to either buy disposable water bottles or use refillable ones.
While Park Service officials previously mentioned safety concerns for park visitors if a bottle ban was implemented at the Grand Canyon, Mr. Ruch said safety was never mentioned in NPS documents or agendas for meeting with bottling companies and concessionaires.
"There is not a scintilla of documentation on that," he said.
A backdrop to this controversial story is the Park Service's "Green Park's Plan," which has a goal of reducing waste in part by offering water bottle refilling stations in at least 75 percent of park visitor centers by 2016, the year the agency marks its centennial. Part of that initiative is also to get concessionaires to stop selling water in disposable bottles and replace them with reusable bottles.
In the wake of that plan, however, the agency's "Concessions office has expressed a concern over these goals and asked the Director to consider the feasibility of these goals as it relates to concession impacts," reads a memo prepared in January 2010 by Shawn Norton, who works on climate change and sustainability issues for the Park Service.
According to Mr. Norton's calculations, not only would a ban on disposable bottles reduce waste and recycling costs, but it also would lead to sizeable savings in electricity usage. As much as 18 million kilowatt hours per year could be saved if 15 parks considering such a ban -- including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Death Valley -- implemented one, he noted.
Two parks that have moved in that direction, Zion and Hawaii Volcanoes, have seen mixed results, according to that memo. At Hawaii Volcanoes, where the cooperating association decided to stop selling disposable bottles, the association estimated it will gross $80,000 a year in reusable bottle sales and will net a profit. At Zion, concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which came up with the idea of banning disposable water bottle sales, lost $25,000 in 2009-10, according to the memo.
However, the move at Zion reduced the waste stream by roughly 5,000 pounds annually and cut energy consumption in the visitor center by about 10 percent during 2009-2010.
"Due to effective outreach and communication, Zion National Park reports that visitor response is excellent," Mr. Norton noted.