Brand logos pose no danger to national parks or public health

2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and NPS has been celebrating all year with special events around the nation. One of the prime sponsors of the celebration: Anheuser Busch.

The brewer’s participation required Director Jon Jarvis to waive Park Service policies against partnering with alcoholic beverage companies.

By most accounts, the birthday party has been a success.

Now for the after-party cleanup.

A petition drive led by a coalition of environmental and other organizations has gathered about 200,000 signatures on a petition opposing revisions to what is knowns as Director’s Order 21, the order that was waived to allow the Anheuser Busch deal. Those revisions would permit the use of brand logos of alcoholic beverage companies on things such as vehicles, benches and along walkways.

The protesting groups want NPS to continue to limit corporate campaigns to those “conducted with high standards that maintain the integrity of the NPS and its partners.” In their interpretation, that means no cigarettes and no booze.

Their motivation, of course, is to do it for the children.

“As organizations dedicated to protecting public health – especially the health of children and adolescents – we are deeply troubled by the stated plans of the National Park Service to allow permanent partnerships with alcohol companies,” the groups wrote in a letter to the Park Service last month.

Many of these groups are among those who complain the loudest about how the federal government shortchanges the Park Service.

“I don’t think that corporations have a place in this issue, it really should be the federal government funding our public lands,” says Kristen Strader of Public Citizen.

But the notion that parks are a commercial-free zone that need to be protected from the ravages of free enterprise is absurd – if you don’t think so, go to the website of any park concessionaire at Yellowstone (as I did recently) and try to reserve a room for next summer. There is no shortage of commerce being practiced in our national parks.

There’s also no shortage of booze, readily available for purchase in many parks. One national park, Hot Springs in Arkansas, even has a microbrewery on site.

So clearly, fears of alcohol overwhelming our youth in national parks are, at a minimum, misplaced.

Just as misplaced is the fear of commercial encroachment.

The parks already accept millions in tax-deductible contributions from generous donors (and a little bit from cheap ones like me) through the National Park Foundation and the plethora of individual park foundations and “Friends of” organizations.

“What we’re trying to do is modernize our philanthropic capability for the Service, for the National Park Foundation, and all of the friends groups that raise money for us,” Jarvis said in an Aug. 1 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Is each contribution to such groups now to be scoured for the rectitude of the donor? If trails at Acadia or safety barriers at Zion are funded by a contribution from a tobacco company executive or, God forbid, a conservative journalist, should the offending structure be torn down and the money returned?

While the proposal to ban alcohol advertising in national parks is not exactly a boycott, it reflects the boycott mentality at its most obtuse: You don’t like it, so it must be bad, therefor it must go and you must suffer the consequences. And, rather than attempt to set reasonable restrictions on the practice, just ban it.

Can these purple-mountain prohibitionists really believe that a Budweiser logo stuck on a bench in a corner of Old Faithful Inn is going to drive a 15-year-old to drink? Really? Then perhaps they should saunter over to the dining room, where there is a fine selection of wines to take the edge off.

As for adults, on a typical day on the trails at Shenandoah, I probably see 50 REI logos as the younger and healthier breeze past me. Never once have I felt an irresistible urge to rush home and buy some hiking socks.

This strain of anti-commercial puritanism has less to do with alcohol than with a particular vision of the national parks as a place where humans are less than welcome.

A Venn diagram of those who oppose alcohol advertising would probably have considerable overlap among those who would also ban cars, tear up the roads and dispense with comfortable lodging.

But the national parks are not something separate from the national experience. Like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and product placement, they are part of it.

In that way, they share in the raucous debate over how humans interact with nature, when humans should give way, and when reasonable accommodation to the masses ought to be made.

Contrary to the vision of men like Edward Abbey, we have roads in national parks because that provides the greatest access to the greatest number of people. In line with Abbey’s vision, we have stopped building huge dams like the one at Glen Canyon because most people found them an abomination.

Democracy thrives when people weigh options and make reasonable choices.

Do not let booze ads invade the sanctuary, argue the prohibitionists. The sanctuary cannot survive such a Glen Canyonesque abomination.

Of course it can.

In fact, the revenue generated by such advertising will help our parks continue to thrive, without despoiling a single view and without endangering a single teenager, who in any case will see immeasurably fewer beer logos while climbing Mount Washburn than he would while staying home and watching football.

John Bicknell is executive editor of Watchdog.org, a nonprofit journalism project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He spent part of his honeymoon in Yellowstone and is going back with his family next summer.

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