A controversial set of new rules quietly given final approval over the recent holiday—allowing national parks in the United States to expand corporate sponsorships and commercial contracts with private companies—is being called a "disgrace" by those who say the move is a betrayal of what the nation's parks should be.
"In a society where we are constantly inundated with advertisements everywhere we go, national parks offered a unique and beautiful escape. Even in schools, students endure a constant barrage of billboards, social media advertising and marketing. Until now, national parks have remained relatively commercial-free, which is why they were such a valuable respite." —Kristen Strader, Public Citizen
Despite outcry from citizens, documented in public testimony and hundreds of thousands petition signatures, the director of the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis announced on December 28 that he had signed an order—officially titled Order #21 on Donations and Philanthropic Partnerships—which, among other changes, ends an outright ban on commercial advertising and lifts restrictions on naming rights in parks.
"It is disgraceful that the parks service plans to sell our national parks to the highest bidder despite overwhelming public opposition to increased commercialism in our national parks," said Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen, which organized against the proposed reforms. Strader cited more than 215,000 petition signers and hundreds of individuals who submitted official objections to the NPS.
In his statement last week, Jarvis argued that public concerns over the changes were overblown.
"Whether or not people and organizations fully understood the proposed changes," Jarvis said, "it was clear that people place great value on national parks and are insistent that they be protected as they belong to all of us."
While he acknowledged the changes would allow "opportunities for limited donor recognition in parks," he pushed back against criticism by saying, "no one is going to commercialize national parks and park superintendents still won’t be allowed to solicit donations. We have federal law to back us up on that."
While Strader gave the NPS some credit for removing a particularly noxious provision from the draft policy that would have allowed corporate logos to be placed on exhibits and waysides, she disagreed the new rules would not seriously change the look and feel of the parks.
"Now that this policy has been finalized," Strader warned, "park visitors soon could be greeted with various forms of advertisements, like a sign reading 'brought to you by McDonald’s' within a new visitor’s center at Yosemite, or 'Budweiser' in script on a park bench at Acadia."
Such a reality, she said, should worry anyone who cherishes the national park system.
"In a society where we are constantly inundated with advertisements everywhere we go, national parks offered a unique and beautiful escape," she said. "Even in schools, students endure a constant barrage of billboards, social media advertising and marketing. Until now, national parks have remained relatively commercial-free, which is why they were such a valuable respite."
This order, Strader concluded, is "a dangerous shift toward opening our parks up to an unprecedented amount of commercial influence."