National parks are cherished for their wilderness value, but visitors may reasonably expect to see any number of non-natural scenes. Well-maintained trails make the wilderness accessible. Rangers at visitor centers tell us where to begin exploring. Historic markers speak of those who came before us.
However, there are non-natural scenes that visitors do not expect to see: Logo-emblazoned informational kiosks. Theaters named in honor of corporate donors. Corporate logos in park brochures.
The National Park Service (NPS) has proposed a new version of Director’s Order 21 (DO-21), which would potentially allow all these things.
- What is a Director’s Order?
- Why is DO-21 being updated?
- What’s in the proposed revision to DO-21?
- My public comments on the proposed revision
What is a Director’s Order?
National Park Service (NPS) operations are governed by everything from the loftiest tenants of Constitutional law to the sleep-inducingest memoranda on interim policy guidance. Between those poles lie a set of documents called Director’s Orders. According to NPS, Director’s Orders are “operational policies and procedures that supplement” the agency’s management policies.
Director’s Orders cover everything from housing management to law enforcement. These orders are periodically updated as circumstances dictate. DO-21 is the order that covers fundraising and donations — or “philanthropic partnerships,” to borrow language from the proposed update.
Why is DO-21 being updated?
The short answer: Because circumstances dictate.
There are many circumstances that seem to have prompted this update. Not least among them is a nearly $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. These are maintenance projects NPS simply cannot afford to complete on its annual Congressional appropriation of $2.6 billion. It’s obvious why fundraising would be important to NPS and its affiliated nonprofit partner organizations.
What’s in the proposed revision to DO-21?
According to the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the revision would:
- 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.
- 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 would also allow:
- The 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.
- Licensing park names, landmarks and symbols for corporate marketing campaigns.
My public comments on the proposed revision
Of the proposed changes that have received press attention, I generally think they are a bad idea. I submitted the following public comments on the proposed revision to DO-21:
Thank you for making available the draft version of Director’s Order 21 and allowing the public an opportunity to comment. Partnerships and philanthropy are undoubtedly an important part of the National Park Service’s future. Because NPS has worked hard to foster positive relationships with park partners, the open and protected status of our public lands enjoys greater certainty than it otherwise would.
I also appreciate NPS’ willingness to further develop its relationships with philanthropic partners. Many elements of the proposed update to DO-21 are reasonable and necessary to keep pace with the changing landscape of fundraising. For example, it makes sense to explicitly allow crowd funding campaigns, at least by nonprofit park partners. However, several elements of the proposed update to Director’s Order 21 represent an unwise step toward the unnecessary commercialization of public spaces. There is no need to open up our park units to the additional presence of corporate logos. The Park Service itself states the case on its website:
“Most institutions that attract significant donations insist on equity in recognizing corporate gifts alongside individual and foundation gifts by using the same typeface and not displaying the donor organization’s copyrighted script or logo. This affords equal recognition for donors and avoids corporate branding or the perception of commercialization. This is the direction that the NPS has chosen based on concerns that parks remain a refuge from corporate branding which is otherwise so pervasive in our society. This still leaves many opportunities for vital corporate partnerships in support of parks.” (Source)
The text is clear: There are still “many opportunities for vital corporate partnerships” without opening the door to a flood of logos. The increased presence of corporate logos in our parks will invariably cause a perception of commercialization.
The new version of DO-21 represents an extreme departure from this philosophy. Although the existing version of DO-21 allows corporate logos and name script in credit lines, it also includes clearly defined limitations on where and how these credits may be displayed. Under the old version of DO-21, corporate logos and name script may not appear on kiosk casings, as digital graphics or overlays present in the main body of a presentation, or on signage that persists after work has been completed on a project. Corporate logos and name scripts may not appear on any donated or donor-funded items.
The proposed text jettisons all of these restrictions. Corporate branding could appear on “temporary” signage that persists for years after the completion of a construction project. It could appear as an intrusive graphic or a persistent watermark visible throughout the entirety of a digital media presentation. It could appear on the body of an informational kiosk. It could be emblazoned on donated items and donor-funded items.
These sensible restrictions should remain intact in the new version of DO-21. Please amend the updated version of DO-21 to retain the existing limitations on the display of corporate logos and name script.
The naming of interior spaces and other park facilities is another step in the wrong direction. The 2008 version of DO-21 specifically prohibited such naming rights. The proposed version of DO-21 represents a 180-degree about face from that prudent restriction. It is simply impossible to avoid the perception of commercialization when visitors are directed to a (hypothetical) “Anheuser-Busch Theater, located within the visitor center.”
These are common spaces owned by the American public and open to the world. They should not be named after corporate sponsors. Doing so erodes the public’s ability to understand that our national parks are held in equal measure by and for all of us. When the public loses sight of this truth, the long-term viability of our national parks is compromised. Parks and park facilities should not be perceived as beneficent gifts from a magnanimous few.
The public perception of the Park Service’s integrity is susceptible to further erosion when a donor with naming rights is involved in scandal or corruption. Indeed, the proposed version of DO-21 specifically allows the Park Service to accept donations from (and therefore grant naming rights to) entities that NPS or DOI is litigating against.
Imagine the perception the public would have had if, fifteen years ago, they visited an “Enron Learning Center” in a national park. There is precedent for this kind of PR disaster: In 2002, the Houston Astros paid $2.1 million to buy back the naming rights for what was then known as Enron Field. Under a worst case scenario, you could have an “American Lands Council Welcome Kiosk” within a visitor center while at the same time the ALC is suing the DOI or NPS over land use or land ownership issues.
I urge NPS to continue its existing policy which forbids the naming of rooms, features, or park facilities as a form of donor recognition.
I also urge NPS to reverse course on their willingness to accept donations from parties that are fighting the Department of Interior or any DOI agencies in court.
NPS should also reverse course on their willingness to accept quid-pro-quo advertising agreements. Such agreements are explicitly authorized in section 6.5 of the proposed update to DO-21:
“Financial Support: A financial sponsor pays a set amount of money in exchange for benefits outlined in a sponsorship agreement. Examples of benefits include an advertisement or mention in event programs, NPS or philanthropic partner newsletters or press releases; signage; or logos on promotional materials.”
These agreements seem to be prohibited by 36 CFR 5.1:
“Commercial notices or advertisements shall not be displayed, posted, or distributed on federally owned or controlled lands within a park area unless prior written permission has been given by the Superintendent. Such permission may be granted only if the notice or advertisement is of goods, services, or facilities available within the park area and such notices and advertisements are found by the Superintendent to be desirable and necessary for the convenience and guidance of the public.”
Any advertisements and there can be no doubt that naming rights and a quid-pro-quo agreement for logo display are indeed advertisements would seem to fall afoul of this regulation. Any notices and advertisements must be both desirable and necessary for both the convenience and guidance of the public.
Even when logo recognition is desirable, it is not strictly necessary. And I can imagine no case where public convenience and guidance are both served by the display of a corporate logo within a park unit.
If the public loses trust in the integrity of NPS and its leadership, the organization will begin its next century of service with an uphill battle to preserve and our public lands. Please do not take any steps that would erode public confidence in the Park Service the revisions to DO-21 have received little press, but almost all of it is negative. As press coverage continues to grow, it will invariably become more negative as the details of this revision become better known.
The legislation that allowed changes to donor recognition was tucked away at the end of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. At what point in the legislative process was this added to the NDAA? Suppose that it was inserted at the last minute without meaningful debate. Would eleventh-hour legislative sleight-of-hand inspire public confidence in the good-faith actions of the Park Service?
And although it explicitly provides for certain types of recognition, it is not even clear to me that section 3054 of the 2015 NDAA actually authorizes NPS to recognize donors with room naming rights. Indeed, it explicitly forbids “naming rights to any unit of the National Park System or a National Park System facility, including a visitor center.” There is nothing to indicate that Congress intended any exceptions to this prohibition.
Are rooms and displays within a visitor center or other building not also facilities in and of themselves? The theater at a visitor center is a theater facility. An interpretive exhibit is an educational facility. A broom closet is a janitorial facility. (It seems clear that the “Rubbermaid Broom Closet” would be an example of a facility naming that Congress intended to forbid.) A quick Google search for the phrase “room facility” will confirm that the use of the word “facility” is commonly used by English language speakers to refer to interior spaces. If there is any doubt, consider the fact that “facilities” is often used as shorthand to refer to restroom facilities, which are generally located in interior spaces. The point here is that the prohibition on NPS “facilities” is not limited strictly to building names.
The appendix to the revised version of DO-21 contains definitions for important terms. However, the word “facility” is missing from the definitions list. The appendix should include a definition of “facility” that is consistent with its common use: “space or equipment necessary for doing something,” and “an amenity or resource.”
Finally, it is worth considering the draft version of DO-21 in relation to the recommendations from the National Park System Advisory Board report “Toward a New Era of Philanthropy and Partnerships.” The report identifies four areas for improvement, including “increasing diversity and inclusion.” I can find nothing in DO-21 that appears intended to address this issue. DO-21 should include language that encourages NPS to create and foster partnerships that will increase minority representation among park visitors, volunteers, donors, and other stakeholders. It should also direct NPS to periodically undertake a review that evaluates the success of such efforts, or to perform that evaluation as a part of diversity reports that are already planned.
I am sincerely thankful for the Park Service’s ongoing efforts to increase stakeholder diversity. I understand that outreach coordinators working at various park units are working to improve visitor diversity, and I know that there is also a high-level commitment within NPS to fully represent the ethnically and culturally diverse nature of the American public.
Because NPS takes these concerns seriously, I suggest that decision-makers carefully consider the implicit messages that may be broadcast if corporate logos are allowed to proliferate. Consider that park visitation is disproportionately white, and that the generosity of prospective corporate partners might correlate with their customers’ tendency to visit parks. Under such a scenario, park units might see a proliferation of logos that underrepresent the interests of minority consumers. Visitors might misperceive an implicit message that national parks are not or should not be important to minority consumers.
I understand that our national parks are desperately underfunded. I understand that our parks have an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance. But the value of the public perception of the Park Service far eclipses the dollar value of this much-needed maintenance.
The new version of DO-21 focuses far too much on sweeping changes and quid-pro-quo arrangements that erode the public’s goodwill toward NPS. Substantial revisions need to be made, and they need to focus on sensible implementation of incremental changes. I previously mentioned the explicit allowance for crowd funding projects by park partners. This is a great idea — but shouldn’t it be spelled out in greater detail? What if only a mere three percent of net revenue from a crowd funding project was donated to NPS? There need to be guidelines in place that allow the Park Service to define what is actually a helpful project, and what is in essence an excuse for a corporate donor to affix their reputation to that of the Park Service.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments, and thank you for their consideration. I look forward to seeing what changes are brought as a result of public involvement, and I am optimistic that the final version will be better because of it.
Policy documents and reports:
- Text of proposed update to DO-21 (NPS)
- Appendix to proposed update: Definitions (NPS)
- Current version of DO-21 (NPS)
- Reference guide to current version of DO-21 (NPS)
- DO-21 on NPS Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website (NPS)
- Policy memo 14-04 (NPS Director Jarvis)
- Towards A New Era of Philanthropy and Partnerships (Philanthropy and Partnerships Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board)
- Donations and Related Partnerships Benefit Parks, but Management Refinements Could Better Target Risks and Enhance Accountability (Government Accountability Office)
- Bipartisan House-Senate Agreement on Natural Resources Provisions in NDAA (House Committee on Natural Resources)
Remarks from conservation and advocacy groups:
- Comments on Proposed Revisions to Director’s Order #21 on Philanthropic Partnerships (PEER)
- Panhandling and Pandering in Our National Parks: Superintendents as Fundraisers, Corporate Marketing and Naming Rights (PEER)
- Coalition Comments on Director’s Order #21 – Philanthropic Partnerships (The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks)
- The Defense Authorization’s Mission Creep (background info on NDAA riders by the Natural Resources Defense Council)
- Donor Naming Rights in U.S. National Parks – Is Brouhaha Justified? (Nonprofit Quarterly)
- Yosemite, sponsored by Starbucks? National Parks to start selling some naming rights. (Washington Post)
- Park Service and corporate advertising, a dangerous mix (Washington Post)
- Advertising in National Parks Is a Terrible Idea (Outside magazine)
- Corporate Branding of National Parks: The Disturbing Link between Philanthropy and Privatization (Nonprofit Quarterly)
- No, America’s National Parks Are Not for Sale. A Q&A With National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis (Will Shafroff, president of National Parks Foundation, published in Huffpost Green)