Why You Might Start Seeing Disney And Other Brands in National Parks

Relaxed rules on donor recognition could allow corporate sponsors to fund items within National Parks

Kevin Egan, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives

The National Park Service is gearing up for its centennial, a celebration that will kick off in August and last for two years. But throwing a multi-year bash isn’t cheap—the National Park Foundation is trying to raise $350 million for the event—a big chunk of change for a cash-strapped agency with a $2.85 billion budget and $12 billion backlog of repairs and projects. That’s one reason the National Park Service has recently proposed relaxing some of its rules on sponsorship.

According to Christopher Tkaczyk at Fortune, the NPS announced proposed revisions to its policy on philanthropic partnerships in March, and a public comment period on the changes closes today. The policy change was spurred by language that passed Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which asks the NPS to enhance private funding of parks through improved “donor recognition.”

Currently, the United States has strict limits on commercial signage in the over 400 units administered by the NPS. The new rule would allow corporate logos to appear on temporary freestanding signs and things like brochures, posters and banners, digital media, some exhibits and vehicles. It also allows things like donor boards, the sponsorship and naming of interior spaces for five years, branded positions, programs and endowments and sponsorship of things like paving stones, benches, theater seats, bear proof lockers and other park furnishings.

Dan Puskar, the executive director of the Public Lands Alliance supports the revision, telling Tkaczyk that the changes will allow parks to highlight donors the way they do at universities and museums. "They’re looking for a tasteful way to recognize donors. I think it’s a really good thing,” Puskar says.

But critics argue the policy change opens a door toward objectionable sponsorship. “You could use Old Faithful to pitch Viagra,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility which opposes changes to privatization and sponsorship policies tells Lisa Rein at The Washington Post. “Or the Lincoln Memorial to plug hemorrhoid cream. Or Victoria’s Secret to plug the Statue of Liberty.”

The NPS and its backers have wrestled with the idea of sponsorship and privatization for well over a decade. In 2003, the Bush administration proposed a controversial plan that could have put 70 percent of full-time park positions into the hands of private contractors, part of a “competitive sourcing” initiative spearheaded by the Office of Management and Budget. Critics, like former Interior Secretaries Bruce Babbitt and Stewart Udall said the plan was a slippery slope on the way to privatization, and could end with “the complete privatization of the national parks.”

That effort didn’t make it through Congress, but in 2007 the NPS did begin co-branding agreements, columnist Jim Hightower explains, which allowed the Parks to “[align] the economic and historical legacies” of parks with advertisers. That year Coca-Cola gave a $2.5 million donation to the Parks and in exchange was allowed for the first time to use images of the parks on its cans.

The NPS considers those partnerships in line with their mission, but critics argue that such arrangements are corrupting. In 2011, Grand Canyon National Park was getting ready to implement a plan to ban the sale of bottled water and had installed water filling stations around the property. Felicity Barringer at The New York Times reports the plan was put on indefinite hold after Coca-Cola, the maker of Dasani-bottled water, registered its concerns with the National Park Foundation, the fundraising arm of the agency.

Another partnership controversy arose last summer when the NPS granted Anheuser-Busch InBev a waiver allowing it to place images of National Parks like the Statue of Liberty on its bottle, cans and packaging and agreed to let it hold events within at its properties after a $2.5 million donation. In the past, the NPS had a policy of not partnering with alcohol produces. It made its first exception to that rule in 2013 when it teamed up with Adler Fels Winery to produce the National Parks Wine Collection, a fundraising project with different varieties named after parks.  

“This is yet another example of the park service's willingness to change its management to accommodate corporate sponsors," Ruch tells Jason Blevins at the Denver Post last summer. “This [Budweiser] deal isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a bungy jump. This not a modest, limited step.”

But the NPS says those fears are overblown. “The great thing about the policy is it protects those features of the park that are important to all of us,” Jeff Reinbold, the Park Service’s associate director for partnerships and civic engagement tells Rein. “But it gives us new opportunities and new tools” to attract much-needed donors.

Members of the public can read the proposed policy and make comments here.  

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