Disney is not going to be bringing you Yosemite National Park any time soon, nor, as some have worried, is Viagra going to sponsor Old Faithful, at least not this year. But the plan being pushed by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, set to take effect at the end of the year, would allow corporate donors to display their logos on and in parks. It would also grant naming rights to corporations on key, highly visible park infrastructure, like educational displays.
What a sad day, when America’s best idea has to whore itself for a few dollars here and there.
Perhaps we should not be surprised, given the man behind this move. Jarvis, who oversees 22,000 employees, 220,000 volunteers, 84 million acres of American lands, and a budget of around $3 billion, recently had his hand slapped for writing a book on national parks for a private company-on his government-issue iPad-and was rebuked for the ethics violation. He also wrote his boss, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, that Eastern National contacted him to write the book, when in fact he approached them.
Jarvis was officially reprimanded, was removed from overseeing the NPS ethics division, and will have to take ethics training once a month for the rest of his career. When asked by investigators why he didn’t clear the book with the Department of Interior Ethics Office, he said, “I think I knew going into this there was a certain amount of risk. I’ve never been afraid of a risk…I’ve gotten my ass in trouble many, many, many times in the Park Service by…not necessarily getting permission…I’ve always pushed the envelope.”
Indeed, in the mid-2000s, Jarvis reprimanded Rainier National Park Superintendent David Uberuaga for selling his house to a park concessionaire for three times the assessed value, then turned around and made him the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, one of the plum positions in the Park Service. That’s suspect judgment-at best.
Two questions need to be asked in the face of this new policy: Does the Park Service need the money? And is this kind of public-private menage a deux what we want from our national park system?
First, the money. NPS has a budget of approximately $3 billion. It claims a repair and maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion. Simple math says, yep, it needs the money.
And maybe it does. But critics charge that many of the projects in the maintenance backlog are unnecessary, or part of wish lists, or just padding. Let’s say, arbitrarily, the real amount is close to $8 billion. That’s still a tremendous amount of money.
But the parks, even though they weren’t created to be financial investments, are one of the best investments in the federal portfolio. For every dollar the government spends on parks, a 2014 report found, ten dollars are created. From the $3 billion budget at the time, $30 billion was spurred in economic activity. Some 277,000 private sector jobs are connected to national park spending.
By any measure, this would seem to be a bargain.
“National parks cost us very little,” noted the National Parks Conservation Association last fall, “The entire budget for the National Park Service is a tiny 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget and the average American household pays as much for our national parks each year as it would cost to buy a cup of coffee.”
These are not good times to be asking Congress for money for public lands, we all know that. Those weasels dragged their feet on the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded from oil and gas leases, and refused to reauthorize the ultra-popular program until they finally capitulated late last fall. Asking for extra bucks to chip away at NPS maintenance? Good luck. But if a 10X return on investment isn’t a good one, go see Bernie Madoff. If Congress designated just 10 percent of “my” backlog, $800 million a year, it would be done in a decade
I know. Good luck with that, too.
More important than financial considerations are aesthetic ones. What, exactly, do we want our national parks to be? Should they be primped and pretty, with amenities at every turn? Should they have modern visitors centers and comfortable lodging and wi-fi in the campgrounds? Just how many interpretive displays do they need, anyway?
The modern national park was born in the late 1950s, when the Park Service launched a massive undertaking called Mission 66, to spruce up the system in time for the service’s 1966 50th anniversary. The system had fallen into neglect in the 1940s, and some even called for the parks to be shut down until they were cleaned up. But Mission 66 did more than straighten the photos and dust the credenzas-it brought a new, development-friendly attitude to the parks.
The style of buildings, for example, underwent radical change. Most of the park structures were created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps in a style called National Park Service Rustic, also known as “parkitecture.” Mission 66 replaced these with soaring, modernist structures like the Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, designed by famed architect Richard Neutra; it’s a very cool building, but maybe not so appropriate in national park. Mission 66 also launched an infatuation with road building that led to the paving of the Blue Ridge, Foothills, Natchez Trace, and Colonial parkways. Another six parkways were proposed but rejected.
Whatever the condition of national parks prior to Mission 66, afterward there was an expectation that they be more amenable, with larger visitor centers, clusters of development that resembled small towns, and more standardized employee housing. Is it a coincidence that Disneyland was in its heyday at the same time? Maybe, but under Mission 66 parks took a big step from being conservatories of beautiful places to becoming theme parks.
Director’s Order #21 is another step in the wrong direction. We go to national parks to escape the workaday, to immerse ourselves in grand nature, to take a break from the relentless, throbbing beat of commercialism. Mission 66 made the parks more accessible to more people, and we can debate whether that’s good thing or not, but DO21 offers no improvements of any kind. It passes the buck from public responsibility to private largesse. No, not largesse. Let’s not kid ourselves-brands like Coke and Nike don’t do anything for the public good, they do it for profit or public relations, and the same is true here. What DO21 does is allow the Park Service, Congress, Obama, and us, too, as Americans passionate about our parks, to escape making the hard decisions that tight budgets demand.
It also puts the Park Service at major risk of conflict of interest, waters the current leader seems unable to navigate safely. In 2011, when he was the superintendent at Grand Canyon (before Uberuaga filled his vacant seat), Jarvis backed down on a ban on selling bottled water after Coke, maker of Dasani water, protested. (The ban was later enacted.) DO21 calls for superintendents now to ask private companies and entities to donate money to parks-they can ask for up to $5 million under the new policy. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential for back room deals and unsavory influence. Is that really what we want the heads of our parks to be doing, begging Facebook and Under Armor for money?
Under Jarvis, the Park System has already moved aggressively to pull in corporate dollars. Last year, the director killed a longstanding ban on relationships with alcohol companies and then promptly made a $2.5 million marketing deal with Anheuser-Busch that resulted in beer bottles with the Statue of Liberty on them. “America’s national parks are some of the most beautiful places on earth,” said a Budweiser vice president. “We want to recognize that sense of scenery. That’s why we’ve brought one of the most iconic, inspiring visuals in the world to beer drinkers.”
Oops, sorry. Did my vomit get on your shoes?
Maybe we need a leader with a backbone that won’t bend, the cajones to stand up to Congress and the charm to convince them to pony up, and the ethics to understand that “pushing the envelope” maybe isn’t the best strategy for the National Park Service director. And maybe we also as a nation need to consider parks that do with less. And maybe we don’t need so many national park properties-I know, heresy! Maybe we need to get back to parks with less infrastructure, with a more natural experience. Maybe, instead of caving to pressure and taking the easy dollars, the Park Service could put its efforts into educating people how less can be more, on how nature can be the salve. Isn’t that what we really need in this branded content, always-connected world? What better organization to take the lead on sharing the restorative, healing properties of the great world out there than the NPS.
We can’t go back to the old days, and Mission 66 is 50 years in the rear view. Teddy Roosevelt was president in a far different time than today (though the influence of money has never been tied to modernity). But still, it’s worth comparing this famous quote of his to that of the beer salesman above.
“In the Grand Canyon,” Roosevelt famously said, “Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Would you like to make your thoughts known on the Director’s Order 21? NPS is taking comments on the policy until May 16, 2016. Go here.
Photo by Edward Stojakovich