We are the parks’ sponsors

As beloved a Northwest icon as Rainier beer’s “R” is, nobody wants to see its neon curves perched atop its namesake mountain.

Nor is anyone suggesting it should, but the National Parks Service, as it marks its centennial year, is considering a change to its corporate sponsorship policy that could increase the visibility of company logos and sponsorship acknowledgements on park signage, interpretive exhibits, literature, park vehicles, paving stones, park furnishings and more.

National Park Service officials, at the behest of Congress, are looking to increase the opportunities for financial and other support of the parks. There’s no surprise there; the parks have been woefully underfunded for years. Even as a record 307 million people visited national parks last year, federal support for the park system has lagged. Congress budgeted $2.85 billion for the national parks during its centennial year, but the overburdened parks are suffering from a backlog of maintenance and repairs that total between $11.5 billion to $12 billion.

Organizations such as the National Parks Foundation and state-wide groups such as Washington’s National Parks Fund attempt to supplement the parks’ needs. The National Parks Foundation raised $45 million in 2014. And fundraising by Washington’s National Parks Fund, which is independent of the national foundation and supports the state’s three national parks exclusively, raised another $600,000 last year. It’s support that’s valued and vital but falls far short of the need.

Philanthropy has a long and honored history in the creation and support of our national parks. Gifts of land and money were crucial to the creation of many parks and to their support today, but outward acknowledgement of those gifts has typically been kept to a minimum, providing some respite when we visit parks from the commercial onslaught that we live with daily.

That’s about to change.

Congress, as part of last year’s Defense Authorization Act, is compelling the National Park Service to borrow from the practice of nonprofits and take a more proactive approach to fundraising through “donor recognition.” The service is now revising a draft rule regarding such corporate sponsorships. Adoption of the rule is expected before the end of summer, about the time the parks service marks its 100th birthday on Aug. 25.

Some, including the Washington Post’s editorial board, have mocked others’ concern over the rule change, calling absurd the notion that Old Faithful might be brought to you by Viagra or that the Lincoln Memorial would be used to promote hemorrhoid cream. Such examples are fanciful hyperbole, as much as putting the “R” atop Mount Rainier. And, yes, that would be absurd.

The placement of logos and sponsorship notices within the parks, while still noticeable, certainly will be more discreet.

But there are larger problems than the logos and “brought to you by” messages; namely the change in the mission of park service employees and the abdication by Congress to provide adequate funding for the National Parks Service.

The proposed rule change would require park superintendents and their staffs to actively solicit funds from corporations, adding to their traditional duties of caring for the parks and their natural wonders, ensuring access to the public and educating visitors. Imagine rescheduling rangers from evening campfire talks so they can instead make a pitch to Budweiser reps.

Even if successful, it’s unlikely that corporate sponsorships are going to provide enough funding to begin to repair the neglect that has plagued the parks. But what it will do is provide cover for Congress, allowing it to avoid proper stewardship of public lands in the belief that more “donor recognition” will be sufficient.

Since the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Americans have recognized the value of setting aside our natural wonders of forests, mountains, lakes, deserts, seashore and more for our enjoyment, recreation, health and peace of mind.

A corporate logo won’t greatly spoil that.

What will is the notion that advertising dollars can take the place of our shared duty to protect and maintain that which was given to us by our parents and which we are expected to pass down to our children.

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