The four-thousand-foot-high granite crest of Half Dome, which looks like a bell cut clean down the middle, towers over lush, forested valley at the heart of Yosemite National Park. It is a sight to see — arguably the most recognized sight in the 745,000-acre expanse of sequoia-studded canyons and lofty mountain peaks.
But Yosemite doesn’t own it.
Or at least, the park doesn’t own the famous Half Dome image that’s become a fixture on water bottles, keychains and all manner of other park paraphernalia. That trademark instead belongs to Delaware North, the company that until recently ran hotels, activities and concessions at America’s first federally-designated park. And when Delaware North left Yosemite this month — having lost its concessions contract and then filed a lawsuit over the bidding process — it took the Half Dome logo, other famous place names, and some uses of the very phrase “Yosemite National Park” along with it.
Now, an ugly legal fight over naming rights is unfolding in this beloved wildernesses. On one side, there’s the U.S government, which claims that Delaware North surreptitiously accumulated those iconic trademarks during the two decades it managed Yosemite’s concessions and is now demanding that the park pay to get them all back. On the other side, Delaware North says that it is only asking that the new concessionaire pay full value for the intellectual property it’s getting along with the park’s horse stables and hotels, just as Delaware North once had to do.
Delaware North offered to let the park keep the names while the dispute played out in court. But rather than risk an injunction that might interrupt service at Yosemite, the park demurred, opting instead to temporarily change every sign and logo at a cost of $1.7 million.
On March 1, the day the old contract ended, Yosemite’s luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel, which is a National Historic Landmark, became the Majestic Yosemite. The sign for the cabins at Curry Village was altered to read “Half Dome Village” instead. T-shirts bearing “Yosemite National Park” — three words that, when used on merchandise, Delaware North also owns — were removed from gift shop shelves.
The fight escalated when the National Park Service asked the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to cancel Delaware North’s trademark registrations, the Sacramento Bee reported Friday. In a March 17 legal filing, the Park Service said that the concession company’s lawsuit should be put on hold until the trademark issue is resolved.
“The battle over Yosemite National Park trademarks is now sprawling across multiple fronts,” the newspaper said, “and it could take more than a year to sort out.”
In another place, it would be just a contract dispute. But in Yosemite — which bills itself as “not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra” — it’s being perceived as an affront to the entire point of preserving nature for public use.
“It’s not just a name, it’s iconic. This is our history and you can’t mess with that,” Fresno resident Bill Campbell, who spent his honeymoon at the Ahwahnee 40 years ago, told the Courthouse News Service. “The park belongs to the people, it’s not right that this company is trying to profit from that. People won’t stand for it.”
That view has been promoted by the Park Service, which is challenging Delaware North’s claim to the trademarks on the grounds that “these historic names are associated with the buildings and belong to the American people,” Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gediman told Outside Magazine.
Asked to explain why the park itself hadn’t trademarked them, Gediman wrote Outside in an email that the “general thought was that names of buildings go along with the buildings, and no trademarks were necessary. [Delaware North] filed for trademarks without telling NPS, and we thought buildings and names went together.”
Many of the names that have been changed are older than the park itself: “Ahwahnee,” which means “big mouth,” is the name for the park’s central valley given by the Native Americans who originally inhabited it.
According to Gediman, the Park Service doesn’t deny that Delaware North owns intellectual property associated with the park — like website designs and a customer database — and deserves to be compensated for them. The Park Service just values that property at far less a sum than the company does: $3.5 million to Delaware North’s claim of $51 million.
The Park Service and other critics have characterized Delaware North’s $51 million pricetag for the names and other “intangible assets” as a shameless money grab. Author and historian Alfred Runte, who has written about the history of Yosemite, told the San Francisco Chronicle that trademarking the names and then charging for them was a way for Delaware North to create a “poison pill to discourage other would-be bidders.”
Yosemite did not require Aramark, the concessions company that ultimately won the new contract, to pay the higher intellectual property price, so Delaware North filed a lawsuit against the park. That’s when it emerged that the company had trademarked so many of Yosemite’s famous names.
In a response, the Justice Department submitted a legal filing calling Delaware North’s demands “grossly exaggerated,” noting bitterly that the concessionaire’s “parent company has apparently embarked on a business model whereby it collects trademarks to the names of iconic property owned by the United States,” according to the Fresno Bee. Delaware North, which manages concessions at the Kennedy Space Center and Sequoia National Park, also holds the trademarks for “Space Shuttle Atlantis” and “Wuksachi Lodge” (Sequoia’s signature hotel).
But Dan Jensen, who managed Yosemite properties for Delaware North, told NPR that the fight over names is “somewhat of a red herring.” According to Delaware North, this is how concessionaires can keep outside companies from making money off unauthorized Yosemite baseball hats and t-shirts. And it’s actually pretty common for concession companies to trademark the names of the facilities they run (last year park operator Xanterra filed trademark applications for nearly 20 place names at the Grand Canyon, according to the Denver Post).
Delaware North itself had to pay for the rights to The Ahwahnee and other trademarks when it bought Yosemite’s previous concession company in 1993, according to company website.
“The existence of the fact that these names are protected and trademarked is just not a surprise to anybody,” Jensen told NPR. “It wasn’t sneaky.”
The fact is that aspects of America’s parks have been privatized for decades. Until relatively recently, the government gave broad license to entrepreneurs to run businesses on public lands, including at Yosemite.
In 1899, husband and wife David and Jennie Curry opened a tent camp there offering “a good bed and a clean napkin at every meal” for just $2 a night. Masterful salespeople, if not quite so thoughtful conservationists, they lured tourists with promotional schemes like the “firefall,” which involved pushing a bonfire over a cliff at night to create a “waterfall” of glowing embers. Almost a century later, the Curry Company was a $80-million-a-year enterprise that controlled all the concessions at the park, according to a 1993 article in the LA Times.
When Delaware North bought the Curry Company in 1993, it was understood that the park would control the actual property — the hotels, the cabins, the lakes on which boat renters could paddle — while Delaware North owned the “intangibles” and the right to operate there.
But even then, park fans were nervous about the big, national corporation that would be controlling services at Yosemite.
“We will be watching them very closely to see if they put the park first and profits second,” Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society, told the LA Times at the time.
Two decades later, the government alleges that they aren’t.
“These registrations are causing damage and injury to the National Park Service,” Interior Department attorneys said in their filing with the trademark board, according to the Sacramento Bee.
In at least one man’s eyes, perhaps there is some measure of justice in that. Asked what he thought of the naming dispute, Malcolm Margolin, longtime-publisher of the Indian cultural magazine “News from Native California,” recited an incident from the park’s early history.
“Do you know the story of Chief Tenaya?” he asked environmentalist Kenneth Brower, who wrote an essay on the issue for National Geographic this year. Tenaya had been leader of the Ahwahneechee Tribe, which lived in the Yosemite Valley, when U.S. troops drove them out in 1851. A member of the American battalion, Lafayette Bunnell, then stripped one of Yosemite’s lakes of its native name to re-christen it in honor the embattled chief. But when Bunnell told Tenaya of the honor, the man’s “countenance fell.”
“He thought the naming of the lake no equivalent for the loss of his territory,” Bunnell later wrote.
Margolin dubbed this the “Tenaya Phenomenon” — how the renaming of a place can be a betrayal, honoring the idea of its past while at the same time rewriting its history.
“With the Park Service’s new names in Yosemite, we, the usurpers of the valley of the Ahwahneechee, got a taste of our own medicine,” Brower concluded. “The Tenaya Phenomenon has come home to roost.”