Creeping Corporatization of National Parks

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Creeping Corporatization of National Parks

Summit Promoting a Billion Dollar Private Endowment for Parks

Washington, DC — As the National Park System prepares for its centennial in 2016 it is turning toward corporate funding for support, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A core strategy announced by National Park Service (NPS) leaders in August 2011 is creating a billion dollar corporate-financed endowment outside the federal appropriation process.

Today through January 26th, an invitation-only summit in Washington, DC focuses on how to build support for the NPS agenda, called a Call to Action.  While not hosted by the NPS, the summit is being staged by the National Park Foundation, the congressionally-chartered fundraising arm for NPS, and the network representing park vendors and concessionaires.  “America’s Summit on National Parks” does, however, feature NPS and Interior Department officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations.

One of the main financial sponsors of the summit is Coca Cola, which recently leveraged its substantial contributions channeled through the National Park Foundation to temporarily block a ban on disposable plastic water bottle sales at Grand Canyon National Park.  Coca Cola is a major water bottler whose products would have been affected. Five weeks after the company’s role was exposed in November 2011, NPS backed off its veto of Grand Canyon’s plans.

“Our national parks do not need a super PAC to flourish in the 21st century,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that a big private “slush fund” raises issues of accountability and transparency not addressed in agency plans. “Corporate money comes with strings attached, which inevitably means special treatment for special interests at the expense of our national commons.”

PEER points to the $2.5 million “Proud Partner” agreement Coca Cola entered into with NPS and its Foundation as an example of “creeping corporatization” of national parks.  Under the 5-year arrangement which runs through 2012, Coca Cola gets exclusive use of park logos for cause marketing campaigns (to the exclusion of all other beverage companies).  In addition, the company obtains –

  • “Special visitation opportunities, e.g., for executives and key customer hospitality, in the Parks”;
  • “Marketing Support” including a “promotional media commitment.”  The agreement specifically mentions that Coca Cola will “develop executions around the parks that are part of the African American Experience Fund under the system multicultural marketing platform”; and
  • A variety of “in-park activities including tours, events and interpretation” as well as unspecified “additional mutually beneficial program enhancements.”  The company will also receive discounted National Park Passes for its employees and approved “promotional purposes.”

Coca Cola’s contributions to the National Park Foundation are completely tax deductible.  The only explicit limit on cross-marketing is that NPS does not explicitly endorse the company’s products.

“Taxpayers are underwriting commercial marketing campaigns courtesy of the National Park Foundation,” added Ruch, noting that NPS will need 400 agreements similar to the Coca Cola Proud Partner deal to reach its billion dollar goal.  “Any summit on the centennial of our nation’s park system should ponder how to preserve the integrity of America’s best idea from the seduction of material pressures – a topic apparently not on this week’s agenda.”

PEER obtained the Coca Cola agreement after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the National Park Foundation.  PEER is calling for all of these fundraising deals to be on the public record.

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