This summer saw a flurry of articles centered on a proposed change (read the change here, Director’s Order 21) in how the National Park Service solicits and recognizes private donations, including from corporate entities. The Washington Post published a story on the issue headlined, “Yosemite, sponsored by Starbucks? National Parks to start selling some naming rights,” while the organization PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) entitled its story on the matter, “Panhandling and Pandering in our National Parks.” Clearly, the issue of corporate sponsorship arouses strong feelings among park supporters and, perhaps not surprisingly, also makes for some eye-catching headlines. But is the link between conservation and corporations actually new? And what does it reveal about deeper connections between economic change in the United States and the manner in which the country manages its public lands and historic sites?
The early history of National Parks in the late 19th and early 20th century is inseparable from the development of railroads, then one of the most influential industries in the nation. Railroad companies had benefited from a huge land giveaway during their initial construction phase and now sought to increase traffic and profits along their lines through the creation of National Park sites. Indeed, many historians argue that were not for the influence of the railroads in state capitols and in Washington, D.C. a good number of the parks widely hailed as “crown jewels” of the system, such as Yellowstone, Glacier and the Grand Canyon, would have faced greater opposition over their respective designations. Moreover, railroads financed the construction of iconic lodges in the parks as well as other infrastructure improvements. Of course, they were not the only supporters of park designation or the only beneficiaries. Early concessionaires, also private entities, played a role in promoting the creation of new units as did nearby towns and businesses. Preservationists, eager to protect natural wonders (which was a primary focus in the early period of park history), also lobbied Congress. In the majority of cases, the voices of less prominent local residents, especially Indigenous peoples, received scant attention. Overshadowed by those with more ready access to power and influence.
All this is not to say that the National Parks are a bastion of corporate America, only that their history has never been free from the influence of big business. Indeed, as most of the articles critiquing the new policy make clear, corporations have long been donors to the National Park Foundation as well as individual Friends’ groups. What might change now are the visibility and, potentially, the impact of such efforts. In this regard, National Parks are only the latest in a long line of public entities – state universities, k-12 schools, libraries, highways, local park efforts – to make more evident the longstanding influence of private individuals, nonprofits and companies on what were once considered public landscapes. All now bear the imprints and the management philosophies of non-public actors, which is not necessarily a negative. Indeed, it is important to remember that government has often played a less than benign role in perpetuating racial, class, gender, and ethnic inequities, with pressure coming from outside organizations for reform and change.
As the American state contracts and cuts discretionary funding items, like its public lands, arts and science initiatives, other bodies will fill the void. For parks, this may well become a “retro” moment of sorts, recalling the early influence of railroad financiers who played a integral role in deciding construction projects and marketing priorities. Given the enormous challenges facing not only the NPS, but also conservationists in general, the question then becomes, if not the state then who might be best to bring into partnership. Large foundations, nonprofit groups, corporations, and small individual donors are all a possibility. The new reality calls for not only vigilance on the part of those who would seek to maintain accountability and transparency, but also creativity and a renewed commitment to equity and outreach. All to ensure that public access and resource protection remain central to the Park Service mission.