Panhandling and Pandering in Our National Parks
Superintendents as Fundraisers, Corporate Marketing and Naming Rights
Washington, DC — In a quiet but far-reaching move, the National Park Service is poised to begin aggressively seeking corporate sponsorship for park projects and using agency personnel as fundraisers, according to a critical analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The plan will give corporate donors expanded naming rights, use of National Park symbols in advertising and much greater influence over park managers and National Park Service (NPS) decisions.
Private philanthropy has supported national parks for more than a century. This proposal fundamentally shifts from that traditional role to one where NPS is seeking private gifts to support its base budget, lowering its reliance on appropriated funds and increasing dependence on corporate money. To accomplish this, the policy would make fundraising a central activity and would for the first time:
- Authorize agency officials to solicit gifts from corporations and individuals on government time;
- Require park superintendents to spend large amounts of official time on private fundraising. The plan makes “philanthropic success” a core requirement to serve in an NPS leadership position; and
- Use tax dollars to assemble and maintain databases of current and prospective donors, conduct marketing “feasibility studies” and develop donor recognition plans for each park.
“It is both unprecedented and unseemly to use tax dollars to solicit donations and cultivate potential donors,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the plan would have the NPS take over many of the functions performed by its congressionally chartered fundraising arm, the National Park Foundation. “This plan would put fundraising on a par with conservation in our national parks.”
The policy, in the form of a revised “Director’s Order on Philanthropic Partnerships”, would significantly expand the scope of corporate branding both inside and outside parks, including –
- Allowing display of corporate logos in a variety of park settings;
- Selling corporate “donor recognition” displays on park benches, equipment, interior spaces, landscaped areas, paving stones and even theater seating; and
- Licensing park names, landmarks and symbols for corporate marketing campaigns.
Besides making national parks into venues for product placement, PEER criticizes the lack of meaningful safeguards against corporate gifts influencing national park policies, such as how Coca Cola contributions led NPS Director Jon Jarvis to intervene against Grand Canyon banning sales of plastic water bottles – including Dasani, the nation’s largest selling bottled water brand manufactured by Coke.
In February, Jarvis was reprimanded and stripped of ethics-related duties for improper fundraising. Yet the plan makes him the ultimate judge of what corporate arrangements would be deemed appropriate.
“Large corporate donations exert a not-so-subtle gravitational pull on park managers increasingly dependent on these donors for their budgets. We are concerned that influence peddling will soon become a major recreational activity in our national parks,” Ruch added, noting that PEER is already hearing from park employees under pressure to placate donors. “Having Jon Jarvis as the arbiter of propriety in fundraising is like putting a kleptomaniac in charge of mall security.”
The NPS plan on Philanthropic Partnerships is open for public comment through May 16th.