by Tim Neville | photograph Dave Cox
A few years ago, Grand Canyon National Park had an issue with water bottles. People need to drink in the desert, but the one-and-done plastic containers contributed to more than 900 tons of recycling. Ban their use—just water bottles—and Grand Canyon could reduce that number to 292. The ban would save millions of kilowatts of electricity and prevent tons of CO2 emissions. But no one would go thirsty: Visitors could buy reusable metal bottles, refilling them gratis at park water stations.
It seemed like a simple solution—until it wasn’t. Coca-Cola was a “proud partner” of the National Park Foundation-—the official charity of the National Park Service—having donated more than $13 million. Some of that money had even helped fund the Grand Canyon’s recycling effort. But the idea of a bottled water ban made the company bristle. Coke also owns Dasani. The multi-billion dollar corporation sent “strong negative feedback” to Neil Mulholland, the foundation’s president in 2010. Mulholland in turn passed word to the National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who agreed in an email that everyone, including the “impacted industries,” should hash out an “acceptable and practical solution.”
Big business and our national parks have been awkward bedfellows ever since the early 1900s when Louis Warren Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, peered through his pince-nez spectacles at today’s Glacier National Park and declared that every person to visit “represented practically a net earning.” Hill couldn’t have been more right: Last year, there were more than 307 million recreation visits. Fittingly, Congress awarded NPS its biggest budget ever at $3 billion. But more money—$12.5 billion, for things like road and sewer repairs—is needed.
Enter the Coca-Colas of the world—plus American Express, Disney, and even Budweiser—which, fresh on the scent of the parks’ need for big dollars are more than happy to oblige through spectacular partnerships. Through those deals, some parks now have Subarus; others, spruced-up visitors centers. Still, it’s hard to imagine any of these companys stepping up to sponsor the new sewage system Yellowstone needs. But a question pulled straight from the Bernie-Hillary debates remains: How much money can the parks accept before conflicts of interest arise?
The problem, of course, is that money is never really free. According to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, big business partnerships are pushing the parks into the world of corporate marketing. “They say it’s philanthropy,” says Ruch, “we say it’s merchandising.” Budweiser, for its $2.5 million backing of the National Park Foundation’s Find Your Park campaign—half the price of a 30 second Super Bowl ad—got the NPS to waive its decades long prohibition on identifying the parks with alcohol, and can license any park names and images, save for the main arrowhead logo. Maybe $5 million will buy that?
Park Director Jarvis, for his part, stresses that in no way are the parks for sale. “No matter how much money you give us, we’re not going to rename El Capitan,” he says. Still, the footing can get slippery when publicly funded entities count on corporate money.
A loose parallel can be found in the story of sports stadiums across the U.S. Back in 1996, the Houston Astros baseball team needed a new place to play. The citizens of Houston agreed to build a new field, using $180 million from public sources. It wasn’t enough, so Enron helped make up the difference. After the energy company soiled its name in its notorious debt-hiding scandal, the Astros, through no fault of their own, seemed guilty by association playing at Enron Field. So Minute Maid stepped in, changing the name to Minute Maid Park. Who owns Minute Maid? Coca-Cola.
One could argue that corporate sponsorships are a necessary evil in a tax-weary nation—especially for our cash-hungry national treasures. The money does, after all, help parks fund sustainability projects and maintain trails. In a way, they’re also good for business. Reports show for each dollar invested in our parks, the economy gets ten back. Yet accepting corporate cash—as much as an estimated $350 million worth in the next few years—also means exposure to some awkward risks.
That’s what happened with Coca-Cola. After the proposed bottled water ban surfaced, Coca-Cola representatives as well as those from the International Bottled Water Association, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and the park service, all gathered in Washington to discuss that “acceptable and practical solution.”
The Jarvis team had already announced a bottle water friendly stance that would postpone any bans across all parks. Eventually, Grand Canyon banned the bottles, but the “acceptable” system-wide policy now in place hasn’t exactly encouraged other parks to follow suit. Just 19 of the 411 in the park system have ceased the sale of water in disposable plastic bottles. Currently, the NPS supports a proposal that would give superintendents more room to accept donations directly, diverting their time and eventually becoming a prerequisite for career advancement.
This makes Jeff Ruch seethe. “It’s one thing to sponsor a special event,” he says, “but something completely different to jump into bed and procreate.”
From our Early Summer 2016 issue.