Holding up the Coca Cola Co. as an example of "creeping corporatization" of the national parks, PEER officials said the Foundation's efforts to build a $1 billion endowment for the national parks could lead to unhealthy corporate intrusion into the parks.
The non-profit group noted that the Foundation is one of the key sponsors of America's Summit on National Parks, which opens Tuesday evening in Washington, D.C.
"One of the main financial sponsors of the summit is Coca Cola, which recently leveraged its substantial contributions channeled through the National Park Foundation to temporarily block a ban on disposable plastic water bottle sales at Grand Canyon National Park," PEER's release charged. "Coca Cola is a major water bottler whose products would have been affected. Five weeks after the company’s role was exposed in November 2011, NPS backed off its veto of Grand Canyon’s plans."
Park Service officials, though, said Coke officials did not influence their decision. Rather, they said, the hold was simply placed so the agency could conduct due diligence on the impacts of such a ban. For instance, they said at the time, how might the safety of visitors to Southwestern parks such as the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands be impacted by a ban?
“(Park Service Director) Jon Jarvis wants to get rid of water bottles in parks. That’s the goal. We want to do this," agency spokesman David Barna said last month. "The issue with Grand Canyon is it’s such a big park and it sets such a big precedent."
However, among the documents PEER released Tuesday was an email chain (attached below) in which Coke officials clearly stated their concern over the disposable bottle ban at the Grand Canyon.
"I hate to engage you only with issues or opportunities, but the attached note is somewhat of a shock to us..." Quinton Martin, who works in Coke's retail community relations department, wrote to Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Parks Foundation.
"If this is a trend across the (Park) Service, it creates a new set of challenges for us," he added.
Mr. Martin also voiced his opinion that the Park Service didn't have authority over bottled water in the parks.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said in Tuesday's release that “(O)ur national parks do not need a super PAC to flourish in the 21st century." He added that a billion-dollar "slush fund” raises issues of accountability and transparency not addressed in National Park Service plans for the endowment.
“Corporate money comes with strings attached, which inevitably means special treatment for special interests at the expense of our national commons,” said Mr. Ruch.
PEER pointed to the $2.5 million “Proud Partner” agreement (attached below) Coca Cola entered into with NPS and its Foundation as an example of “creeping corporatization” of national parks. Under the 5-year arrangement, which runs through 2012, Coca Cola gets exclusive use of park logos for cause marketing campaigns (to the exclusion of all other beverage companies), the group noted.
In addition, the company obtains –
· “Special visitation opportunities, e.g., for executives and key customer hospitality, in the Parks”;
· “Marketing Support” including a “promotional media commitment.” The agreement specifically mentions that Coca Cola will “develop executions around the parks that are part of the African American Experience Fund under the system multicultural marketing platform”; and
· A variety of “in-park activities including tours, events and interpretation” as well as unspecified “additional mutually beneficial program enhancements.” The company will also receive discounted National Park Passes for its employees and approved “promotional purposes.”
Coca Cola’s contributions to the Foundation are completely tax deductible, PEER's release said. The only explicit limit on cross-marketing is that NPS does not explicitly endorse the company’s products, it added.
“Taxpayers are underwriting commercial marketing campaigns courtesy of the National Park Foundation,” said Mr. Ruch, noting that NPS will need 400 agreements similar to the Coca Cola Proud Partner deal to reach its $1 billion goal. “Any summit on the centennial of our nation’s park system should ponder how to preserve the integrity of America’s best idea from the seduction of material pressures – a topic apparently not on this week’s agenda.”
PEER obtained the Coca Cola agreement after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the National Park Foundation. PEER is calling for all of these fundraising deals to be on the public record.