When does the use of national parks by private companies cross the line between park promotion and corporate commercialization?

That is the question raised by television spots shot in Shenandoah National Park that feature its beautiful vistas and not incidentally, a Subaru.

Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was partially closed in order to make the commercials during portions of two days in October. A drone, generally prohibited by park regulations, also was used in production of the spots made with National Geographic. Two 30-second videos promote the “Find Your Park” campaign by the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Park Foundation.

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Park officials anticipated drone filming would be controversial, but special permission to use it was quickly granted following a flurry of emails.

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The productions feature Lori Epstein, a National Geographic children’s book photo editor, driving a Subaru along Skyline Drive with husband Sean and dog Tyler, amid colorful fall foliage.  “Autumn here is always spectacular,” she says in a voice over.

The announcer gets the last word: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

These look and sound like car commercials, but National Geographic and the Park Service insist the spots are not.

“The video was produced to support the National Park Service centennial goal to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates,” said NPS spokesman Jeremy K. Barnum.

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The spots were aired with the America’s National Parks series on the National Geographic channels.  “We worked closely with the Parks Service in planning this shoot, were accompanied by the Park Service during the shoot and followed all necessary protocols when filming in the Shenandoah National Park,” said Laura Nichols, a National Geographic spokeswoman.

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Nonetheless, the ads are a “blatant example of commercialism” in national parks, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which secured documents about the shoot through a Freedom of Information Act request. “The visiting public was kept off of park facilities,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, and “park rules against commercial closures and drone access were ignored and the approval was immediate with no apparent internal debate.”

Word of the Subaru filming comes as the Park Service is developing plans to allow its employees to be more involved in securing private sector donations for the parks. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report warned of the risks of getting too cozy with corporate donors: “Partner exerts undue influence over Park Service priorities,” “Public confidence in the Park Service is compromised,” and “Parks and Park Service become commercialized.”

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Notably, GAO cautioned against “corporate donations made to parks or partners and tied to advertising.”

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Seeking to place the Subaru spots in a broader context, NPS officials pointed out that the use of parks by corporations is nothing new. Older folks might remember the iconic “See the USA in your Chevrolet” television commercial sung by Dinah Shore more than 50 years ago. Portions were filmed on national park property.

The drone request said “anywhere from a few hundred feet to 2 miles” of Skyline Drive would be “stopped down.” Filming occurred at four locations for less than 10 minutes each “in accordance with the park’s standard operating procedures,” Barnum said.

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Those procedures include “NPS Management Policies 2006″[nps.gov]: “The Park Service will not permit the staging of an event in an area that is open to the public, or the closure of an area that is open to the public, when the event is conducted primarily for the material or financial benefit of a for-profit entity…”

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NPS officials don’t view the Subaru spot as primarily benefitting the car company.

Regarding drones, the June 19, 2014 “Policy Memorandum 14-05″[nps.gov] from NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said “I direct each superintendent to use the authority…to close units of the National Park System to launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft…”

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There are exceptions, including a catch-all “special use permit.”

An October 19 memorandum from Jim Northrup, Shenandoah’s superintendent, requesting the special use permit for a Gryphon Dynamics X8 drone, predicted objections to its use.

“The permitting of commercial filming with a drone could be potentially controversial by seeming to set a precedent in the park,” Northrup wrote. “We feel that the centennial partnership relationship and the focus on the Find Your Park campaign warrant special consideration.”

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NPS officials didn’t spend too much time worrying about controversy. The next day, the request was approved in Washington by Charles Cuvelier, associate director for visitor and resource protection, and the permit was issued. It allowed drone filming, car to car filming, a cast and crew of 15 people and five vehicles.

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Northrup said the filming would support the “Find Your Park” campaign while showcasing the park’s “many dramatic viewsheds.” Making the commercial, he argued, “is appropriate and compatible with the values and resources of the park.”

It is the values of National Park leaders that are now being questioned.

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