BY BRAULIO AGNESEOn Dec. 28, 2016, then-National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis signed “Director’s Order #21: Donations and Philanthropic Partnerships,” the latest update to the agency’s guidance on engagement in public–private partnerships and the appropriate acceptance of support from the private sector. Originally issued in 1998 and then revised in 2006 and 2008, the directive’s newest version received backlash from several quarters after the NPS released a draft version for a 45-day public comment period in late March 2016. (Jarvis retired from the NPS on Jan. 3, 2017. Michael Reynolds, former deputy director of operations, is serving as acting director until a permanent appointee is named.)
The draft generated a strong negative response from preservation groups, government-focused nonprofits, and corporate watchdogs, which pointed out the greatly expanded possibilities for corporate visuals (such as wraps on NPS vehicles), warned of logos on national treasures, and expressed the worry that park managers would become active solicitors for commercial sponsorships. Scenic America, devoted to preserving the “visual character of America,” partnered with Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert, a nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative for keeping “commercial culture within its proper sphere,” to spread the word about the draft. The NPS received 350 comments on the directive, 80 percent of which were negative, Commercial Alert estimated in a September letter.
In its press release announcing the finalization of the order, the NPS notes that the revised order arose from a desire to “better align the bureau with current best practices in philanthropy.” Reginald Chapple, the division chief of the NPS Office of Partnerships and Philanthropic Stewardship, points out that the agency did amend the draft over the summer and fall, both in response to criticism and to keep the document in line with federal law regarding donor recognition: “We looked at comments and said, ‘Yeah, we’re allowing corporate logos, so that [and other language] was removed,” Chapple tells LAM. The NPS also clarified language regarding solicitations, he adds, and will embark on an education and certification program, in partnership with Philadelphia’s La Salle University, to instruct park managers and NPS division chiefs on the proper handling of donations.
And it’s not just the NPS that’s feeling the pinch. State park systems across the country are being forced to consider sponsorships, advertising, and naming rights as public funding dries up, sometimes altogether: In Wisconsin, state tax support for the Department of Natural Resources was completely removed in 2015.
As Director’s Order #21 was signed over the holidays, the action received scant media attention apart from a post in the Consumerist blog, which reported on the NPS order throughout the year. In a statement, Commercial Alert called the final version—which permits both small-scale, semipermanent name recognition (such as bricks and benches) as well as limited and temporary, but more highly visible, corporate recognition—“a dangerous shift” toward greater commercialization.
And so the fight continues, says Max Ashburn, Scenic America’s communications director. “It’s OK for us to take the position of no advertising in the parks,” he continues, because there will forever be pressure from the business world to push the envelope and attain whatever marketing advantage it can on public land.
“I think the saddest part,” adds Scenic America President Mary Tracy, “is that the NPS feels the need to do this,” referring to the new NPS order, corporate donations, the agency’s years-long struggles with sufficient public funding, and its $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. “Corporate philanthropy is important,” she concludes, “but if that comes at the cost of a huge sign, I don’t know.”