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Park Pact 

Is big business eyeing our nationally protected lands?

Next time you visit Saguaro National Park, will you hike Taco Bell Trail? Unwind at Safeway Springs? Or enjoy a sunset at Verizon Vista?

You just might, according to critics of a new National Park Service directive. They say the proposal, called Director's Order 21, could open the floodgates to corporate control over parks. At the very least, it will test the boundaries between government and business interests on our public lands. This has already occurred at Yosemite National Park, which received more than $23 million from the private Yosemite Fund over the past 17 years. Behind that fund are corporate heavyweights ranging from Chevron and Bank of America to Wells Fargo.

Just what do those companies expect for their money? That's the worry of park advocates who view the measure as an aggressive new push for private funds--one that could see uniformed park employees appearing in ads, land-use decisions driven by outside funders, and the routing of employees disliked by some big-ticket donor.

Those concerns were fueled in 2003, when Park Service officials and the NFL planned a $10 million season kickoff on the National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop. Interior Secretary Gale Norton called the NFL gala "a wonderful opportunity to showcase public service by volunteers who help to protect our natural resources." But much of the public was disgusted.

"We view that event as a harbinger of what's to come," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C. Under the new proposal, "parks employees could be turned into a sales force, and park superintendents will be rated on their ability as fundraisers," he says. "And what we find particularly disturbing is the lack of professed awareness by (Park Service) representatives that they're entering a danger zone. They seem to think philanthropy in all its forms is good. And that causes us to believe they will never hear a proposition they don't like."

John Piltzecker heads the Park Service's Partnership Program in Washington, D.C., and he's the guy steering this plan through bureaucratic waters. Piltzecker says the changes are simply meant "to clarify some of the existing policy."

Many donors--including approximately 250 "friends groups" associated with parks around the country--considered the existing policy "negative in tone and overly regulatory," he says. "But we celebrate the role that philanthropy plays in national parks. It's long tradition."

It's also an increasingly popular custom as congressional conservatives continue to starve public lands. Case in point: With a $1.7 billion annual operating budget, the nation's parks currently suffer a maintenance backlog topping $4.5 billion. To fill this gap, land managers face little choice other than digging their snouts ever deeper into the private-corporate trough.

But some contend that a carefully controlled mix of public and private funding isn't necessarily bad. "What the Park Service is doing is well-intentioned," says Phil Voorhees, vice president of park funding and management for the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C. But Voorhees wants the endgame thoroughly spelled out. This proposal could "benefit land managers who are under financial pressure," he says. "But they are putting themselves in a position where it will require a lot of work to make sure the measure is perceived by the public as above-board."

Ruch says the new directive could threaten the public trust in several ways, such as increased naming of park facilities and publications for donors, marketing of the Park Service's arrowhead symbol, and providing agency flexibility to cut special deals with major patrons. Indeed, the document gives the NPS director plenty of power to make exceptions. For example, Ruch says, "The day after this order is finalized, the director could (order) that all visitors are directly asked to give money, with no further public input" about the decision.

But many fundraising strategies already exist, says Piltzecker. "We thank donors in a lot of ways. We thank them through our publications, press releases and at meetings." Within the parks, however, "corporate partners only receive the same sort of recognition as any individual who donates.

"For instance, on a donor wall at the Park Service visitors' center, (corporate donors) would appear in the same print line as everybody else," he says. "Or it could be on a temporary sign--a trail-maintenance project might be possible with recycled lumber from Unilever, or with funding from other corporate sponsors, and that's meant to go away after a period of construction. In that case, we would allow a corporate logo. But we allow all of that now."

And although park supervisors "implicitly have the authority to solicit donations, we've reserved that to the highest levels of the agency, from the director down to regional directors," Piltzecker says. At the same time, those superintendents "always have the authority to reject donations. The guidance is very clear: We do not accept donations that would impact the integrity of a national park or the impartiality of the National Park Service or public confidence in what we do."

Closer to home, Saguaro Superintendent Sarah Craighead says she's more than willing to reject inappropriate donations. With a yearly budget of about $3 million, her park receives only about $30,000 annually in outside gifts. Often, those funds are earmarked for special projects such as sprucing up trails or picnic areas.

"But Park Service policy says that we don't name things," Craighead says. At trail heads or other outer areas, "you're allowed to have a small recognition line. But we certainly don't go beyond that. And if we have multiple donors for a project, we don't have five lines about who funded it. With most of our donors, there's no string attached."

But when there are strings? "Folks have said, 'We want our name on (something),' and we've said, 'No, that's not what we do; that's not what we're about.'" Craighead explains. "People come to national parks for a respite from their everyday lives, and they don't need to be faced with corporate advertising."

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