By Leia Larsen
When visitors hike through Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park or study the pre-Columbian ruins of Mesa Verde, there’s a good chance corporate influence isn’t foremost on their minds.
Americans have made it clear on many occasions that they don’t want commercialism in their parks (see here, here and here). Still, there’s no denying corporate interest in national parks abounds. Often it’s benign, like local businesses capitalizing on tourist traffic or corporations using donations as public relations opportunities. Occasionally, though, businesses and corporations try to push the limits of what’s acceptable in national parks.
For its part, the National Park Service has worked hard to keep corporate influence outside of its parks’ gates. The service wrote strict guidelines regulating advertising and commercial use in its 2006 Management Policies. The service has enacted policy and complied with governmental audits on the issue. But with 397 park units and counting, shortfalls in funding, and a rising need for donations to keep the service afloat, corporate dollars can be hard to turn down.
Colorado national parks, however, have not buckled to corporate pressures. In 2010, staff at Colorado National Monument stood firm against tough corporate influence. Sub company Quiznos approached the monument with a request to host a stage of its 2012 Pro Cycling Challenge. Not only did Quiznos want Colorado National Monument to provide the setting for the race, it also wanted to close Rim Rock Drive – a major circuit running through the park and its primary access road – to the public during the event.
“We thought it would have some major tourism impact,” said Diane Schwenke, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, in a telephone interview. The event could have brought in tourist dollars and helped with the branding the community through television coverage, she explained.
By their nature, national park areas are public resources, 24/7. Park service staff also determined the race could cause damage to wildlife and resources. Another problem: commercialization of the monument violates National Park Service policy.
With that in mind, superintendent Joan Anzelmo denied the request.
“Was there a lot of pressure to host this race here? Absolutely there was,” said Michelle Wheatley, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services at Colorado National Monument, in a telephone interview.
Schwenke expressed her frustration over the National Park Service’s decision, especially since it had recently approved the “Tour of the Moon” bicycling event for October 2012. The event is a leg of the Coors International Bicycle Race.
“We have a corporate venue that’s going to be using the Monument this year, but because it’s a tour and not a race, they were allowed to do it,” said Schwenke. “So there’s a little consternation among the local residents.”
According to Wheatley, the park unit has hosted cycling events in the past, including a leg of Ride the Rockies. However, the commercial nature of the Quiznos event, its impedance to visitors, and its potential for impact to park resources made it different.
“Accommodating the needs of commercial bike races goes against our 2006 management policies,” Wheatley said. “It would adversely impact park resources, both natural and cultural, and would deny access to visitors coming from near and far.”
Congressional and state leaders, including U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, urged the National Park Service to reconsider, based on the economic benefits the race would have for the area. But Colorado National Monument staff held firm.
David Nimkin, the National Parks Conservation Association’s southwest regional director, lauded their decision. “National park policy has a clear distinction that they are not to be commercialized or used to benefit any corporate interest,” Nimkin said.
The National Parks Conservation Association is an independent member-based organization founded in 1919, a few years after Congress established the National Park Service. Its mission is to protect and enhance national parks. While this mostly means advocacy efforts, the association also acts as a watchdog. This can result in tough measures. In 2006, for example, along with other organizations, it sued the National Park Service over a water right for Front Range development that would have impacted the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
“The Colorado National Monument case is a great example of how parks must handle corporate interests,” Nimkin said.
Although Colorado National Monument managed to quash the Quiznos event, not all parks manage to ward off corporate influence. Last November, a New York Times article shed light on how difficult thwarting corporate interests can be. The Grand Canyon National Park was all set to ban plastic bottles inside the park, but then federal parks official Jon Jarvis tabled the proposal after big-name donor Coca-Cola raised concerns about the ban.
Public outcry caused the National Park Service to reconsider the issue, and the plastic bottle ban was approved in February.
Federal funding shortfalls
At the same time as the Grand Canyon bottle issue, the National Parks Conservation Association issued a report with some alarming statistics. Federal funding for the National Park Service has declined 13 percent, or nearly $400 million, in the last 10 years.
Again, Colorado bucks the national trend. Federal appropriations for park units have actually grown over the last decade. After adjusting for inflation, that increase has amounted to 28 percent in the last 10 years. The increase is partly because the government added funding for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2002. Since then, Colorado parks have seen a 19 percent increase in funding, with a healthy jump between 2007 and 2009.
While Colorado is doing well, the costs of park unit operations across the nation have mounted in recent years and federal funds haven’t kept pace with those needs. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1999 and 2009 the National Park Service’s reported expenditures went up by 47 percent when adjusted for inflation.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office audit conducted from 2001 to 2005 revealed that federal allocations weren’t keeping up with the rising costs of national park operations. Those costs extend beyond upkeep and repair. Pay raises for staff, escalating utilities fees and enacting new policies all take a slice out of a park’s budget pie.
In its 2012 budget justifications, Colorado national park units cited funding needs for preserving paleontological resources at Dinosaur National Monument, preserving water resources at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and expanding law enforcement at Hovenweep National Monument. A slew of other projects are underway, including new visitors centers at Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.
Foundations Help Fill Budget Holes
Faced with limited federal funding and mounting costs, the National Park Service often turns to private and corporate donors. Beginning in 1967, Congress established foundations and partnerships specifically to raise money and cover budget holes. The first was the National Park Foundation. The idea has since spread, and now nearly every park has its own individual money-procuring foundation.
“As you can imagine, we’re under the watchful eye of Congress,” said Larry Frederick, chief of interpretation at Rocky Mountain National Park. “One of the things that Congress does not want to hear is that they are not funding us at a sufficient level, because that makes them look bad. So while we allow our nonprofit organizations to fundraise and ask for donations, I, as a federal employee, cannot.”
One such foundation is the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Nature Association, which since 1986 has completed over 40 projects valued at roughly $10 million for Rocky Mountain National Park. The Association generates revenue through sales at its stores and from grants and donations. For 2009, the Association reported a total revenue of just over $2.5 million, with almost $970,000 attributed to contributions and grants.
“Most of the business donations we get are local, said Julie Klett, the Association’s development director in a telephone interview. “We have worked with some corporate foundations, but that’s just the philanthropic side of business,” she said.
Having separate fundraising organizations also provides the added benefit of insulating Colorado’s national park units from the interests of those forking over the cash.
“If we were to look at a company that did want a corporate incentive, we would have to run it through the National Park. For example, it would be bad form to work with a tobacco company to sponsor children’s educational programs. We would never pursue that kind of relationship,” Klett said.
While seeking out corporate donations, foundations like the Rocky Mountain Nature Association raise money for parks in other ways. They sell books, T-shirts, magnets and stuffed animals in visitor centers. They apply for grants. They organize fee-based educational programs. Their websites provide ways for individuals to contribute cash to their favorite parks. Foundations also provide benefits beyond fundraising. For example, Rocky Mountain Nature Association purchased a tract of land, remediated an old dump, and paid its property taxes before donating it to Rocky Mountain National Park – all at the park’s insistence, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.
Because the foundations are charities, they must file 990 forms with the IRS to document their funding sources. In Colorado, IRS 990 forms show the general trend is to raise revenue primarily from merchandise sales, educational programs and other non-donation and -grant based revenue. A few organizations, like the Mesa Verde Foundation, fundraising partner to Mesa Verde National Park, raise nearly all their revenue through contributions and grants.
According to Ben Duke, executive director of the Mesa Verde Foundation, the donations come almost entirely from local businesses.
“From what I can tell, our donors’ intents are truly philanthropic,” Duke said. “The incentive has to be philanthropic – it’s not the same as the private sector.”
No Denying Corporate Benefit
Corporate donations aren’t always malicious and can be mutually beneficial for both parks and businesses. In fact, some of the parks probably wouldn’t exist without the philanthropy of large donors, according to the National Park Service’s Donations and Fundraising Director’s Orders.
Since the National Park Service got its start in 1916, it has benefited from corporate influence. Heavy lobbying from the Northern Pacific Railroad helped establish Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park. Oil mogul and famed philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller contributed cash to several parks, including a museum at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
This year, Duke hopes to rope in donations from corporations involved in oil and gas exploration near Mesa Verde, like BP. The contributions will help fund park projects, but also provide good PR for the donating companies.
“They’re making a lot of money in our area. I’m sure they want to be seen as good citizens for the community,” he said.
Many businesses, some of them quite small and locally based, recognize national parks as a source of economic stimulus for their communities.
“Particularly in the local areas, they figure what is good for the park is good for business,” Klett said.
While it’s tempting for parks to readily accept corporate donations, especially when cash is tight, Colorado parks have a track record of exercising caution. In 2005, Ford Motor Company gave the National Park Foundation several Escape Hybrid vehicles, two of which it presented to the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although they came through the park’s intermediary foundation with no strings attached, Frederick approached the donation cautiously. The vehicles are wrapped with scenic images of the parks, but the graphics also include small lines touting the National Park Foundation.
“It’s scenes of national parks, but also somewhat discreetly there’s a couple websites on it so as to maybe advertise for others,” said Frederick, the park’s education and interpretation chief. “The director of the National Park Service had to give a waiver to policy to allow those to be accepted and used in national parks.”
By law and National Park Service policy, no fixtures advertising a corporation or acknowledging a private donor are allowed in national parks.
“We can turn down any offer for cash or donation that we think is inappropriate. In fact, by policy, we should,” Frederick said. “Our policies prevent us from commercializing the park.”
Policy may be there, but parks will continue to need proactive staff, advocacy groups and concerned visitors to thrive. And visitors can support their parks beyond just giving money.
“Many people love their national parks,” Frederick said. “Another way they give back is by volunteering, but that’s another subject.”