THIS COUNTRY’S national parks, monuments and historic sites are, as anyone who has visited them will attest, treasures that must be fiercely protected. Any talk of corporate and other private sponsorships is bound to raise concerns. No one wants to see the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty or El Capitan besmirched with company logos. But such befouling is not, in fact, being proposed. There is no reason the park system shouldn’t adopt fundraising practices that are commonly used in the nonprofit world — particularly because, given inadequate congressional support, the alternative is deterioration of these precious places.
The National Park Service stirred controversy with its announcement of a revamp of its philanthropy policy. Private donations have played a role in development and maintenance of the park system throughout its 100-year history, but givers have received little or no recognition. The proposed change, currently under review, would offer temporary naming rights to some park buildings and the addition of company logos to temporary signage, printed materials, exhibits and digital media.
Critics have attacked the plan as creeping commercialization that will lead to Old Faithful being used to sell Viagra, or the Lincoln Memorial being used to promote hemorrhoid cream. While those sky-is-falling characterizations are off-base exaggerations, there is the risk of corporate sponsors creating conflicts of interest that could detract from the purposes of the parks. It is important to establish clear lines; the experiences of museums, universities and other nonprofits show that the risks can be managed with advantage to both sides. A case in point is the more liberal giving policies of the Smithsonian Institution; that the panda habitat bears the name of donor David M. Rubenstein doesn’t detract from the experience of viewing the zoo’s prized mammals.
It is disgraceful that the park system has been so systematically underfunded that it has been forced to look for new sources of revenue. With yearly appropriations that don’t keep pace with inflation and a backlog of needed repairs estimated at $12 billion, there is simply, as National Park Foundation President and Chief Executive Will Shafroth said, not enough money for the park service to accomplish its goals. Congress’s refusal to live up to its obligations leaves the Park Service with little choice but to look for other viable means of maintaining the nation’s parks and monuments. As the National Park Service finalizes its rules, it is important to ensure there are protections against abuses, complete transparency about plans and a process for prudent decision-making and oversight.