As a young boy growing up, national parks appealed as places of wonder, where wild things lived and today's conveniences and contrivances largely were left behind at the entrance gates.
Roads were few, and those that existed within the parks led to overlooks and trailheads. Your feet took you down into the woods and up over the mountains, and the air was fresh and carried the scents of wildflowers, pines, sagebrush, forest duff, fresh rains and more.
That, of course, was a young boy's idyllic interpretation and impression from 40 years ago. But my own sons grew up with similar impressions from touring Yellowstone and Grand Teton, exploring the rocky ramparts of Arches, the dunes of Cape Cod National Seashore, and hiking upstream into The Narrows at Zion, and hopefully their grandchildren will, as well.
But connections made by the National Park Foundation might have you believe a massive, tricked-out four-wheel drive vehicle is needed to conquer the national parks, or that a puff of air-freshener in your bathroom is all it takes to visualize Yellowstone, or Virgin Islands, or Glacier Bay national parks.
The Foundation's congressionally mandated role, of course, is to raise charitable dollars for the National Park System, dollars that can supplement those provided the National Park Service through the Interior Department's budget. And in many areas the Foundation does a great service to the parks, both in underwriting needed on-the-ground projects and working to connect younger generations with the parks.
For instance, the Foundation has sent $13 million to Olympic National Park to help restore the Elwha River drainage in the wake of the removal of two dams there, has raised $67 million to help restore the Everglades, and has helped bring inner city youth to parks such as North Cascades National Park to both experience the outdoors and better understand the impacts of climate change.
But recent licensing agreements raise questions of what is an appropriate connection between a corporation and a national park? Park Service policies preclude the Foundation from getting involved with tobacco and alcohol companies, but is everything else fair game?
Specifically, the Foundation has licensed its name to a company that sells after-market off-road equipment for pickup trucks and SUVs, and to another that makes air fresheners. The licensing provides the companies with a direct connection to the national parks, a marketing tie for these companies to leverage, to wear.
While these deals send an amount of dollars back to the Foundation -- amounts the Foundation won't reveal out of "proprietary" concerns -- can it be enough to justify these deals? Shouldn't the Foundation err on the side of caution when it comes to licensing the parks, our national natural and cultural heritage?
Here are some of the ways the deal the Foundation made with Venchurs, Inc., which provides after-market Xplore kit-packaging for pickup trucks and SUVs, is being promoted:
XPLORE Stage 1 vehicle packages feature Katzkin leather interiors as a builder level for a wide variety of options including dealer installed genuine Mopar parts and accessories.
XPLORE Stage 2 vehicle packages feature XPLORE/Method black aluminum wheels, massive BF Goodrich off-road rubber, Bilstein 5100 Series adjustable shocks, an XPLORE polished stainless-steel cat-back exhaust system, XPLORE aluminum badges and XPLORE heavy-duty floor mats.
XPLORE Stage 3 gets serious with expedition quality ARB equipment like racks, roof-top tents and recovery gear. Other available equipment includes Thule racks, Warn winches and industrial strength tonneau covers; all are available as mix-and-match accessories.
Stage 4 XPLORE trucks are built-to-order at Venchurs Vehicle Systems facilities in Southern California or Adrian, Michigan. Custom matte paint finishes, graphics, leather interiors, AMP PowerStep retractable running boards, Bed-Xtender, bed-slides and more are all available on these trucks.
And here's how some media that follow trucks are covering the news:
From Men's Cosmo
The Xplore Adventure Series Toyota FJ Cruiser with a price tag of $35,000 and above is a powerful sport utility vehicle (SUV) equipped with off-road tires and upgraded shocks. Crafted as the ultimate adventurer pack, the vehicle can proficiently scale mountains and cross streams.
And this from Motor Trend's Truck Trend blog:
Customers who want to upgrade SUVs like the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, and Jeep Grand Cherokee through wild, untamed territory can turn to southeast-Michigan company Xplore Vehicles. The group sells a range of modifications that help prepare normal SUVs for trips through the wilderness.
Trucks are workhorses, and they can be great for getting you to your base-camp in the national parks. And there are appropriate off-pavement uses of trucks in the parks. There are four-wheel drive routes in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, for example, and beach driving is allowed to varying degrees at the national seashores.
But we don't believe the Foundation should be a granting its imprimatur to a marketing program that promotes "massive ... off-road rubber," snorkel exhaust systems designed precisely so trucks can navigate streams, and which stresses truck "trips through wilderness" or vehicles that can "scale mountains and cross streams."
Such imagery is directly at odds with the Park Service's preservation mandate, its approach to dealing with climate change, and its efforts to lower carbon footprints.
Surprisingly, in light of the fact that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chairs the Foundation's board of directors while Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is its secretary, neither apparently were aware of this licensing deal.
"I doubt if they signed off on it, because we don’t tend to elevate a lot of those things through the directorate," said Rich Weideman, who oversees partnerships for the Park Service.
But he agreed with Foundation officials that reaching out to off-road enthusiasts is a good idea, one that tries to make make a new audience aware of the parks. As to whether the licensing deal is at odds with the Park Service's campaigns to encourage sustainability and reduce carbon footprints, Mr. Weideman said the Park Service is very specific where vehicles can travel in the parks.
While the Air Wick connection to the parks is not as egregious as the Xplore deal, how shrewd is it for the Foundation to tie the national parks to a product many associate with freshening the air in bathrooms?
Of course, these air fresheners are very selective—you won’t find one wafting the smell of the skunky pungence of galax along a Great Smokies trail, the sulphurous aroma of volcanic gases in Hawaii, or the eggy sniff of a hot spring in Yellowstone. And yet those smells are very specific to those parks and even memorable to some visitors.
With many kids content to NOT even go outdoors, much less experience the parks, do we need new efforts to replace real park experiences with idealized commercial substitutes for fresh air? The same question applies for vehicles that make one “seem to be" a park explorer when the very values espoused by the advertising seem quite antithetical to natural park offerings and regulations that protect them.
There is also the issue of choosing among competing brands. Air Wick is one among many air-freshener companies. Who would benefit if the Foundation chose an official guidebook publisher, rainwear manufacturer, or tent supplier?
The National Park Service is not permitted to choose one company over another to endorse commercially —but to permit the Foundation to do so, even for a good cause, would seem to base the entire equation on "who writes the biggest check." Permitting money to determine who benefits from a connection to the national parks may not benefit the image of the parks, the Foundation, or the idea that book publishers and air freshener companies should fight it out fairly in the market.
With licensing of the national parks only expected to get more desirous in corporate America as the National Park Service nears its centennial in 2016, we believe those raising funds for the parks not only need to be exceedingly circumspect in assessing the benefits but also be fully transparent with the public on the decisions it makes on behalf of the public's National Park System.
The public might assume that really big bucks are being charged for such visible, valuable identification with parks, but without those details being made public, how can the value and wisdom of those deals be weighed? And even if those dollar figures were made available, can the beauty, culture, and history of the National Park System be purchased with a large enough check?
In short, deals the Foundation negotiates should pass the smell test, and then some. As the late George Hartzog, Jr., the seventh director of the National Park Service, told his biographer, Kathy Mengak when their conversation turned to his dealings as director: "If it doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, and doesn't smell right, it probably ain't right."
Should an organization that promotes conservation, preservation and sustainability in the parks also endorse vehicles that "can scale mountains and cross streams" and or make "trips through the wilderness"?
If reaching out to new audiences is the goal, should the Foundation endorse an NPS centennial edition hunting rifle or handgun? How about an official videogame manufacturer?
This is not to disparage all deals the Foundation approves, for as noted above it has aligned itself with some very worthy partners.
But while Foundation officials say they "evaluate each potential deal on the merits of the company and how it will align with the Foundation’s mission, vision and objectives," a similar, perhaps more important, question must be asked: How does each potential deal align with the national parks?
This creeping commercialism does conjure one very sharp similarity between some of the Foundation’s sponsorship programs and national parks. Both contain very slippery slopes and ways to get lost in the woods.