Park Service Centennial Spotlights Public Lands Disputes

National Park Service via AP

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, a sign on the Yosemite valley floor points to the newly named Majestic Yosemite Hotel and the Yosemite Valley Lodge on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Yosemite National Park, California. The prices of Yosemite National Park souvenirs have been slashed in half, and road signs directing visitors to iconic attractions have been switched. The changes took place at midnight Monday amid a bitter legal dispute between government officials and Delaware North, which operated many of the popular attractions from 1993 until Monday when competitor Aramark took over.  

Having lost the $2 billion contract to run the concessions at Yosemite National Park, a food service, lodging, and retail company called Delaware North has left the park and taken with it the names of several iconic landmarks—the corporate equivalent of taking all of the marbles after losing the game.

Beginning in 2002, Delaware North began trademarking many of the place names inside Yosemite National Park. When it lost the bid for the right to run Yosemite’s concessions last year, the company sued the National Park Service to require that the incoming concessionaire pay it $51 million for the right to use many of the park’s historic place names.

So now the Park Service has been forced to rename many Yosemite sites. The Ahwahnee, the beautiful lodge in Yosemite Valley, will go by the generic-sounding “Majestic Yosemite Hotel;” the Wawona Hotel (an Indian expression for an owl’s hoot) will be known as the “Big Trees Lodge.” Delaware North even claims trademark rights to images of Half Dome, Yosemite’s world-famous icon of sheer rock, and to the words “Yosemite National Park” that appear on mugs and T-shirts sold there. Gift shops in the park will now offer merchandise branded simply “Yosemite.”

It’s easy to single out Delaware North for its stunning overreach. After all, it takes gall to claim trademarks on Native American names, and it’s even worse to do so in what’s supposed to be an ideal of public space: a national park. But the Yosemite trademark fight is just the latest example of a much broader assault on public lands as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its centennial in August. As one Justice Department lawyer put it, Delaware North appears to be embarking on “a business model whereby it collects trademarks to the names of iconic property owned by the United States.” In a similar fashion, conservative activists and lawmakers have renewed their long-running attack on the very idea that some lands should be held in common.

The most blatant example of this right-wing attack is the antics of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family. In 2014, Bundy got into an armed standoff with federal authorities after he refused to pay fees that he owes the U.S. Treasury for grazing his cattle on public lands. Then, in January, Bundy’s son, Ammon and a crew of fellow anti-government activists staged a 41-day occupation the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The Bundy gang seized on the Malheur duck preserve as a symbol of what they called federal “tyranny.”

The Bundys' tactics might be extreme, but some within the Republican Party share their views. Public land conservation was once a bipartisan priority on Capitol Hill, but the issue has become deeply polarizing, like so many others, during the Obama presidency.

The 112th Congress (from 2011 to 2013) was the first in nearly 50 years that failed to designate any new wilderness areas in the United States. Only a single national park bill—to create Pinnacles National Park in central California—has passed since Barack Obama was elected. Congressional Republicans are waging a sustained (if so far unsuccessful) attempt to limit Obama’s authority to establish new national monuments under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president to protect areas of outstanding natural or cultural importance.

In February, congressional Republicans introduced a pair of bills that would allow state governments to seize control and ownership of national forests within their borders and then auction them off for logging or mining. In recent years, legislatures in seven Western states have passed, introduced, or explored laws calling for the transfer of federal lands to state control. These efforts have been coordinated by none other than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, two prominent conservative nonprofits underwritten in part by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.


Against this backdrop, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service couldn’t come at a better time. While some of the nation’s public parks and preserves date back longer than a century—the wonders of Yosemite were placed under the protection of the state of California during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, and Congress established the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872—it wasn’t until 1916 that the stewardship of these and other lands were entrusted to a single federal agency.

The Park Service’s big birthday is already receiving a good dose of whoopla. There’s a Robert Redford-narrated IMAX film, big National Geographic spreads, and a string of celebrations planned for the summer. The Park Service’s centennial offers the chance to reinforce a long-cherished and still-popular American ethos: that some places should be held in common. While the anti-public lands movement might resonate with a certain segment of hard-core states’ rights supporters and libertarians, it represents a minority viewpoint even in the American West, where disputes over federal land management are most intense.

A poll released in January by Colorado College found that 80 percent of voters in Western states support “future presidents continuing to protect existing public lands as national monuments.” In a region where outdoor recreation is essential to Main Street businesses, 72 percent of respondents said “national public lands” help the economy. Just one in four Westerners support the idea of selling off public lands, the poll found. And most voters in the West describe themselves as “conservationists.”

The overwhelming popularity of national parks (a 95 percent approval rating, a figure probably only topped by support for babies and puppies) helps sustain such views. In novelist Wallace Stegner’s memorable words, the parks are “America’s Best Idea.” This centennial year will feature no shortage of misty-eyed sentimentality and adrenaline-fueled paeans to the parks. Some of it might border on the cheesy. But with luck it will remind Americans that the parks are unique in their mission. In the United States, no other publicly held asset expresses the idea of collective stewardship so well.

Other government agencies manage public lands, but alongside considerable commercial activity. The U.S. Forest Service safeguards millions of acres of wilderness, and its lands provide vital areas for hunting and fishing. But at the same time the Forest Service—an arm of the Department of Agriculture—is a plantation for the timber companies and cattle-grazers. The Bureau of Land Management also protects huge swaths of wild lands, but its main clients are the oil and gas and mining industries. Scores of Fish and Wildlife Refuges, too, are pocked with drilling rigs and waste disposal pits.

Not so the National Park Service. Only the Park Service stewards public land for for all people, for all time. By doing so, the service cultivates democracy. The parks are a reservoir of freedom, with their big, open places for people to escape into and explore. They are egalitarian, preserved for everyone regardless of income or color. They give Americans space for solitude, places to experience whatever they may call divine. American-born citizens and immigrants and visitors to this country—together more than 300 million strong annually—enjoy the parks, their awe crossing cultures. Most Park Service locations are also home to battlefields and historical sites, making them places to learn about this country’s history.

In the Park Service’s dispute with Delaware North, the Justice Department maintains that the New York company has “wildly inflated” the value of the trademarked names in dispute. The company denies this. For once, Delaware North might be right—even if it’s clearly in the wrong. The names might be closer to priceless, if for no other reason than that they are a trust held by all citizens. The Yosemite place names—like the park itself and all national parks—represent something that feels all-too-elusive these days: common ground.

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