Business parks: Feds sell naming rights to iconic public lands

Agencies seek corporate revenues in the face of fiscal woes.

 

Citing budgetary shortfalls, federal agencies announced Wednesday that they had auctioned off naming rights to over 100 million acres of public lands, effective immediately.

In a joint press release, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service said that hundreds of iconic parcels will now bear the monikers of major corporations. “We’re pleased to collaborate with our private partners in stewarding our nation’s public lands,” states the release. “It gives us great pleasure to know that future generations of Americans will be able to raft down the Grand PepsiCo Canyon, hike across the Anheuser-Busch Badlands, and gaze upon the transcendent peaks of North Cascades Presented by Citibank.”

A photo illustration shows the Nike swoosh engraved on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Photo Illustration by Brooke Warren, Photo by Daniel Parks/CC Flickr

The naming rights sale comes on the heels of fiscal struggles for federal land agencies. The National Park Service’s budget has been cut by $190 million compared to four years ago, and its maintenance backlog has ballooned to over $11 billion. Meanwhile, the Forest Service’s backlog is almost $5 billion, and over 40 percent of the agency’s budget goes toward fighting increasingly frequent and intense wildfires, leaving little money for other purposes.

“Our budgetary situation is approaching a state of crisis,” said Forest Service spokesman Alice Offerman. “Which is why we’re so excited about Valero Valles Caldera and Kinder Morgan Kootenai.” Adds the release: “This new source of revenue will allow us to undertake essential management activities such as trails maintenance, scientific research, and the purchase of military-grade weapons for standoffs with heavily armed Bundy acolytes.”

Not only did corporations purchase naming rights to entire tracts of land, they were also able to buy rights to individual landscape features. In Utah, the graceful curve of weathered sandstone that adorns state license plates will hereafter be known as McDonald’s Delicate Golden Arch. Further north, tourists in America’s first national park will be treated to the reliable eruptions of the Levitra Old Faithful geyser.

“Imagine the majestic face of Half Dome enhanced by a 50-foot swoosh,” Nike program manager Jim Riggles told High Country News. “That’s just one of the many exciting branding possibilities we’re discussing with our public sector colleagues.”

While the rights to world-renowned lands like GoDaddy.com Glacier National Park and Alaska Airlines Tongass National Forest reportedly fetched sums well into the tens of millions, not all properties sold so easily. According to sources, Death Valley National Park particularly struggled to attract corporate dollars. It was finally acquired, at a discount, by Service Corporation International, the country’s largest provider of funeral services.

“For a chain of groceries that prides itself on natural foods, rebranding Oregon’s pristine Crater Lake as Crater Joe’s is a no-brainer,” said corporate strategist Martin Ellmore. “But not many brands want to be associated with ‘death,’ or, say, the River of No Return.”

A photo illustration shows a rendition of McArch, a combination of the golden arches and Delicate Arch in Arches National Monument.
Photo Illustration by Brooke Warren, Photo by David Fulmer/CC Flickr
Many public lands advocates greeted the auction with enthusiasm. Barbara Stevens, a native Idahoan who has volunteered in the state’s forests for 32 years, said the revenue would help pay for bear-proof trash receptacles and interpretive signage. “I suppose I’ll miss saying that I run the visitor center gift shop in Sawtooth National Forest,” Stevens said Tuesday in a phone interview. “But the ‘Red Bull X-Treme TreeZone’ has a nice ring too, I guess.”    


What’s more, the naming rush is likely far from over. Though federal agencies have concentrated on selling rights to landscapes, the government is said to be considering commercial opportunities for biological resources as well. “It’s not far-fetched to envision the famous Target bulls-eye etched on the fur of a grizzly bear, or a sandhill crane towing a flag bearing a Starbucks logo,” said marketing consultant Leslie Lopez. “If you’re John Deere, what’s more on-message than slapping some green and yellow paint on an actual deer?”

Though big-ticket items stole the show, many obscure parcels attracted local interest as well. In western Nevada, for instance, Don Moorehouse, owner of Don’s Discount Generators and Air Compressors in Carson City, purchased rights to 10 acres of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “I can’t even tell you how many shotgun shells, cans of Bud Light, and rusty pieces of scrap metal I’ve left in those woods over the years,” Moorehouse said. “This is my way of giving back.”   

Not every federal agency participated in the auction. Notably, the Bureau of Land Management declined to sell naming rights to any of its 250 million acres. “BLM is not worried about raising additional revenues at this time,” agency spokesman Josh Judd told High Country News. “We’re doing just fine with oil and gas.”

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Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News.