For the National Park Service, its 100-year anniversary was not supposed to unfold this way.
The milestone was to be a year-long victory lap celebrating what National Geographic rightly called our "Common Ground," not a drumbeat of controversies ranging from sexual harassment by NPS Grand Canyon river guides (complete with up-skirt photography charges and withholding food for sex) to the Office of Inspector General compelling National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to receive monthly ethics training for the rest of his career.
Now the NPS is changing the names of iconic Yosemite National Park properties as part of a high-profile civil lawsuit. Shockingly, the Park Service does not even control the trademark for many of the park names - maybe even the name of the park. So, who would have ever thought it was a good idea to have a private company own those names? Brace yourself: it seems that party would be the Park Service itself, which required a concessionaire to buy the names and agree to sell them to the next concessionaire, but now there's a dispute over value.
National Public Radio reported on Wednesday that "... hotels and other Yosemite landmarks have been renamed because of a contract dispute. The outgoing concessionaire, Delaware North, lost its bid for a new contract to manage the properties to Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, a subsidiary of Aramark. Delaware North sued, saying the bidding process was unfair."
The players here are the Park Service and concessioners who operate amenities like hotels and restaurants inside the parks, paying a percentage to the NPS. The Delaware North Company ran the Yosemite contracts for about 22 years, and last year lost a bidding process to another concessionaire. Delaware North says its contract requires it to sell - and the next concessionaire to purchase - property it owns including the trademarks because the NPS required it to buy that property from the previous concessionaire 22 years ago.
So far, a national media firestorm has followed the NPS narrative of "greedy company tries to copyright names" and Delaware North has faced a public relations nightmare. It has offered to let the NPS and the incoming concessionaire use the names for free until the litigation is completed, but the government and the other company have declined those offers. They say using the names under those terms would impact the underlying litigation.
However, not all media bought the NPS-as-victim story. For example, Mother Jones magazine writer Kevin Drum quickly updated his take on the litigation, writing that the story first seemed "obviously outrageous and that was the tone I took... but that was probably wrong. I ended up looking into this issue a little more deeply, and it turns out the whole thing goes back several years and is actually a fairly pedestrian contract dispute."
Drum adds: "It turns out there's nothing inherently outrageous about Delaware North owning some of these trademarks, as even the Park Service admits. 'We have not denied the fact that they do own intellectual property,' said Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite National Park. 'But with these trademarks, it's kind of two issues: One, are these trademarks valid, and, two, what is the value of them?'"
You also find a more nuanced story from the parks-specific websites. The "best" version is likely the National Parks Traveler, which offers this eye-opening background of a Park Service clearly making it up as they go: "The Park Service had initially inserted an amendment to the concessions contract stating that any new concessionaire... would have to purchase DNCY's intangible property, but later withdrew that requirement. However, in a letter dated Dec. 31, 2015, the Park Service again reversed course and said Aramark would have to purchase DNCY's trademark holdings. However, while DNCY placed a $51 million value on its trademarks and other intangible property, which includes a customer database with more than 720,000 names and '75 different informational fields,' domain names and websites, the Park Service placed a $3.5 million value on it."
So what's really going on with this litigation? Some feel it's being decided in the court of public opinion.
A National Geographic writer is among those wondering if the Park Service is engaging in a bit of high-stakes public relations and that maybe changing the names "temporarily" is less "timid" and more "tactic."
It's pretty scary to think that a government agency might use its credibility to intentionally mislead media and the public as a litigation tactic - after all, their "lawyers" are the U.S. Justice Department. Yet I'm assured by some of my Rocky Mountain media colleagues that freedom of information requests are being prepared to find out more. Normally, public servants should get the benefit of the doubt, but after seeing the Grand Canyon sexual harassment report and noting the ethics lapse of the top NPS official, you have to wonder what's next for this "victory lap."