National Parks' Push for Private Money Spurs Debate

The National Park Service wants to generate more money from private sources. A new policy will allow parks to reward corporate or personal donations by naming rooms at visitor centers or erecting commemorative plaques. But critics say the change is part of a creeping commercialism of the national parks.

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The National Park Service is proposing new rules for encouraging donations to national parks. This would make it easier to recognize donors for their gifts. But critics say the change is part of the creeping commercialism of the national parks. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

A few weeks ago, an influential member of Congress suggested selling the right to put company or personal names on national park trails, museums and visitors centers. He also suggested using park buses as billboards for paid ads. Interior Secretary Gale Norton says the Park Service's proposed policy won't go that far.

Secretary GALE NORTON (Department of the Interior): What we want to see is very appropriate types of recognition because we want people to be involved with their parks. We want people to contribute to their parks because they love those parks.

SHOGREN: Private donations to the national parks aren't new, but the new proposal makes it easier to lure contributions by promising public recognition. Norton says it would be very tasteful.

Sec. NORTON: The kinds of things that I've seen are, you know, walkways that might have bricks in them that have someone's name on it or a small plaque that lists some of the contributors. Those are the kinds of things that we're thinking of.

SHOGREN: And is naming a park trail or a particular historic site a possibility?

Sec. NORTON: There might be some possibilities. Again, it would have to be something that is appropriate.

SHOGREN: The rules would allow parks to name rooms for contributors, but not whole buildings. Donors could run ads publicizing their contributions, and the most generous corporate donors earn the title `Proud Partner of the National Parks.' They're allowed to use the Park Service's logos in their ads. Norton says most of the time, it will be up to the individual park superintendents to decide what contributions to accept and what kind of recognition to offer. She says the public can trust them.

Sec. NORTON: Park superintendents are very protective of their parks. They love their parks passionately, and they want to see that they are protected for the future.

SHOGREN: But Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says there's a problem with trusting the superintendents. They've signed onto the Bush administration's pro-business policies, and he says the rules they're supposed to follow are contradictory.

Mr. JEFF RUCH (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility): The way the proposal concludes is that they want to maintain the long-standing policies that the parks be free of commercialism, and that is preceded by 73 pages of guidelines of how they can increase commercialism in national parks.

SHOGREN: Ruch says there's a real risk the parks will be misused in corporate branding campaigns.

Mr. RUCH: Their names and logos will be on things like park benches, on walls of visitors centers, the names of rooms. The parks are not supposed to be commercialized, and this is a backdoor way to commercialize.

SHOGREN: Ron Arnburger(ph), a leader of a group of retired Park Service workers, says parks shouldn't become billboards for corporations, but he says parks need to encourage private donations.

Mr. RON ARNBURGER (Retired Park Service Worker): The real true message here is, is that the parks are starving for dollars.

SHOGREN: Congressman Richard Pombo agrees. He's the chairman of the House committee that sets policies for national parks.

Representative RICHARD POMBO (Republican, California): I mean, obviously, they need more money, and we don't have the money to fund all of the things that people expect when they go to the park.

SHOGREN: And Pombo says the because the government doesn't have the money, like it or not, the government has to think about partnerships with businesses. He says he thinks it would be OK to name a museum at the Grand Canyon after a corporation that paid to build it, but naming a park trail after that same corporation would be going too far. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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