America's national parks: no longer ad-free zones?

Controversy erupts over a plan to let corporate donors display their names and logos at attractions like Yosemite.

Amid the scenic splendor of America's national parks, might visitors one day see a sprinkling of signs that read: "Yosemite, courtesy of Target"? Or perhaps, "Mount Rushmore, brought to you by Verizon"?

It's not so far-fetched, say park watchdog groups. A Bush administration proposal to let corporate donors have more recognition for their financial contributions to national parks - in the form of naming rights, signage, and plaques bearing their logos - will "diminish the experience for visitors and degrade these national treasures," warns Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, now a leader of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

This week, officials at the National Park Service and the Department of Interior are reviewing a proposed rule change that governs corporate giving to national parks. The change, expected next month, would expand corporate recognition - only modestly, says a park service spokesman - for companies whose donations help bolster a park system struggling to fund a maintenance backlog of more than $4 billion. The public comment period for a similar rule change for national forests ended Monday.

"We're considering nameplates for rooms inside visitors' centers," says David Barna, a National Park Service spokesman in Washington. "We're not renaming entire buildings after anyone."

National parks have long banned corporate logos from display on parkland. National forests had been less restrictive. Downhill ski races on national forest land, for example, had included corporate banners at the finish line.

But most outdoor advertising was not allowed - until recently. In 2003, the Ajax Express, a ski lift on Colorado's Aspen Mountain in White River National Forest, introduced sign panels bolted to the safety bars of the lifts, according to published accounts. This season each panel included a trail map for skiers to review - plus an ad for cars, hotels, or credit cards, writes the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming.

The Aspen ads were permitted under an interim rule at the US Forest Service, which had begun reviewing its regulations. In November, the forest service formally proposed a change to permit wider "sponsor recognition."

Under the proposal, sponsors can for the first time display banners, signs, and advertising along trails and roads and inside concession areas, says Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group. Any limits would be set by an "authorized officer." Some forest service areas - such as marinas, ski gondolas, and the interior of lodges - would have virtually no limits, he says.

"If these rules go through, our national forest vistas could include giant inflatable beer bottles, banners for chewing tobacco, and snack-food kiosks," says Mr. Ruch.

A forest service spokesman says the rule is unlikely to result in such displays. "I don't expect those sorts of things," says Daniel Jiron of the US Forest Service. "The change in the forest service policy is really a minor modification from what we already have."

The shift coincides with a bid to permit expanded corporate and public use of public lands - everything from snowmobiles to cellphone towers - to collect fees to pay for park and forest maintenance.

It also is in keeping with what some see as a trend in society toward the encroachment of advertising into places and spaces that previously had been ad-free zones.

Not much research exists on how the public views advertising in national parks, but one poll suggests people hold a dim view. Three in 4 Americans oppose corporate advertising on park brochures and vehicles, a Zogby International poll reported last fall. A larger majority, 84 percent, oppose naming trails and park buildings after companies that paid for them - though Mr. Barna notes the new parks proposal doesn't include renaming buildings.

For critics, the heart of their objection is reliance on corporate donors at all. "It sets a bad precedent, because the more you rely on private sources the less those public areas really belong to the public," says Mr. Wade. "If these companies want to donate money, you can be sure they expect to get something out of it."

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