By Donella Meadows
–September 5, 1996–
Most Americans haven’t heard of the government’s plan to commercialize the national parks. I’ve run into only a few who have, and they are furious. Some of their outrage is based on a misunderstanding of the plan, which, as currently envisioned, is no big deal. But if these folks are typical, clearing up the misunderstanding doesn’t take away the anger. The idea of corporations funding our national parks to any extent, in any way, seems like a final straw, a step over a crucial line, a proof that we have gone way too far with our recent national experiment in shifting from public to private responsibility.
The park proposal is NOT an invitation to corporations to plaster their logos across Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, or the Grand Canyon. Rather it is an opportunity for ten or so selected companies each year to contribute something like $10-$15 million apiece to the national parks. In return they can use in their advertising a special symbol — like the five rings of the Olympics — to proclaim themselves “official sponsors” of the national parks system.
The bill currently in Congress says that the Park Service will ensure that every use of the symbol is tasteful. Companies will not be associated with particular parks or attractions. (No “Coca-Cola brings you Old Faithful!”). Corporate logos will not appear within the parks.
The $100 million or so brought in by the sponsorships certainly could be put to good use. Annual budgets for our 369 national parks, memorials, battlefields, historic sites, and recreation areas have been cut by over $200 million in real terms since 1983, while the number of visitors has increased from 207 to 270 million a year. For lack of funds some campgrounds had to be closed this summer, and there were 900 fewer rangers. Research programs have stopped. Paint is peeling. Roads are potholed. The Park Service says it would take $4 billion to catch up with all the postponed maintenance.
The private sector has been brought into the parks before to accomplish what the government would not do. In 1986 corporations contributed to a $300 million drive to refurbish the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. You may remember the burst of ads in which companies proudly displayed — and took credit for — the restored Miss Liberty.
That experience engendered plenty of criticism. The essence of charity is anonymity, some said. If you have to brag about it — especially if you spend more money bragging about it than you gave in the first place — that isn’t charity, it’s marketing. Furthermore, it’s marketing based on false claims. The corporate contributions (and ads) were tax-deductible, so in fact they were taken from taxpayers’ hides. And twice as much money was contributed by individuals and fraternal, ethnic and community groups as by corporations.
So not only did companies buy fake nobility through association with a beloved symbol totally unrelated to their own activities, but the rest of us, who carried most of the burden, got no affirmation. The whole episode reinforced the destructive myth that virtue and competence can be found only in private corporations, not in our capacity to act together for the public good.
But the impoverished Park Service got the money it needed, so it is repeating the strategy. The cracked surface of the Washington Monument needs repairing. A number of firms, led by Target discount stores, are contributing $1 million apiece to get the job done.
The National Parks Commercialization Act aims to turn these sporadic infusions of corporate money into regular practice. In the current plan companies will cover only eight percent of the Park Service’s annual budget. But one has only to contemplate the Olympics to imagine a slippery slope that could carry us quickly into a commercial swamp. There may be a soul somewhere who believes golden arches or Mickey Mouse will not follow the money into the parks, but there is no such innocence in the advertising world. I’ve seen a slick brochure developed by an ad agency depicting the symbol of one of the nation’s dirtiest industries mounted prominently in front of one of the nation’s loveliest vistas. The agency suggests that this form of advertising will be possible soon and will erase the industry’s bad environmental image.
There are, of course, other ways to fund the national parks.
We could raise entrance fees, and indeed there is another bill before Congress to do just that. In most cases entrance fees haven’t gone up since the parks were established. The new bill would not only allow parks to raise fees (a car entering Yellowstone, for example, might pay not $10 but $25), but would let each park keep the money instead of, as at present, passing it to the general Treasury.
More money could also come from park concessions. Over 650 private companies earn a total of $700 million a year operating campgrounds, restaurants, hotels and such in the parks. They pay $19 million a year for their monopoly licenses, which are granted for 10-30 years and are usually renewed automatically. Another 1200 licenses go to companies that run raft, snowmobile, and pack trips through the parks. Here’s a place where market principles could benefit our parks, but bills to open park concessions to competitive bidding passed Congress overwhelmingly last year and then were held back by the Republican leadership, so they never reached the president for signature.
Another way to pay for the parks is — shocking thought! — through our taxes. Doubling the present $1.5 billion operating budget would cost $5 per American per year — call it $15 per family. If we, the least-taxed people in the industrialized world, feel too poor to raise our taxes that much, we could get the money by building one less B-2 bomber.
Generations of Americans poorer than we are somehow managed to maintain the parks, commonly owned, commonly supported. We inherited them, the crown jewels of our citizenship. Is there really something different about us, something less wise, something weaker or cheaper or meaner, that prevents us from passing to our children these beautiful lands, well-kept, proudly and commonly supported, refuges from the commercialism that dominates every other part of our world?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996