Zinke is letting corporations profit off our national parks

A company is cashing in on prized public lands by fleecing American taxpayers.

 

Greg Zimmerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range the opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a public-lands policy organization based in Denver, Colorado.


What if I told you that a multibillion-dollar company decided to trademark the name of one of America’s most prized national parks? And that the company then sued the United States to defend its purported trademark? And that to top it all off, that company has been invited into the inner circle of government by a now-indicted member of Congress, meeting in private with a Cabinet secretary and also sitting on a government advisory panel?

You’d probably reply that it all sounds outrageous, and that, if it’s true, it’s a genuinely shocking example of a corrupt presidential administration. Unfortunately, it’s true.

This story begins in 2015, when Delaware North, a New York-based hospitality and concessions business, lost the contract to run Yosemite National Park’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops. The company had held the contract for more than two decades, during which time it quietly trademarked names and images associated with iconic landmarks inside Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee Hotel, a national historic landmark, the likeness of Half Dome, and even the phrase “Yosemite National Park.”

Scott Gediman, the spokesman for Yosemite National Park, wasn’t happy with the name grab, telling The New York Times, “We feel strongly that the names belong to the American people.”

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke visits Yosemite National Park in July, 2018.

Rather than refocusing its expansive concessions business after losing the Yosemite contract, the company decided to take the U.S. government — and by extension the American public — to federal claims court, demanding $50 million for its surreptitiously acquired trademarks. The National Park Service, of course, maintains the trademarks aren’t valid. Even if they were, they would be worth no more than $3.5 million. A review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database indicates that Delaware North is unique among concessionaires in holding trademarks to America’s parks.

The litigation between the National Park Service and Delaware North remains far from resolved, but, in the meantime, the National Park Service was forced to rename historic landmarks inside the national park. Now the Calvin Coolidge-era Ahwahnee Hotel is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the Wawona Hotel is Big Trees Lodge, and Curry Village is Half Dome Village.

Despite Delaware North’s questionable business practices and the company’s ongoing legal fight with the U.S. government, it is no pariah in President Donald Trump’s Washington. The Trump administration has welcomed Delaware North with open arms, granting the company’s executives an audience at the highest levels of government. When Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced his “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, included in the list of 15 members was Jerry Jacobs Jr., the billionaire co-CEO of Delaware North.

Jacobs Jr. joins a group of business executives and industry lobbyists tasked with expanding so-called public-private partnerships in national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other American publicly owned lands. Setting aside the important question of whether we should be privatizing park functions, it’s hard to defend an individual who has so blatantly abused the public’s trust.

Delaware North’s presence on the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee is not an isolated incident. Last month, CNN reported that Zinke held a private meeting with three executives from Delaware North, including Jacobs Jr., along with New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who federal prosecutors have charged with insider trading, counts Delaware North as his largest campaign contributor during his congressional career.

Likely realizing the unfortunate optics of the Zinke-Delaware North meeting, the Interior Department went to great lengths to conceal the names of the participants on the secretary’s official schedules. But when briefing materials of the meeting were released through a Freedom of Information Act request, the true purpose of the meeting was there in black-and-white. It was “for company executives to provide an overview from Delaware North regarding how the Park Service works with concessionaires.”

A company this greedy, whose founders are cashing in by fleecing American taxpayers and our prized public lands, should not be welcomed in the halls of power. But we have come to expect this kind of behavior from members of Trump’s cabinet, Zinke included.

In less than two years on the job, Zinke has thrown open the doors to campaign donors, family business friends and the executives of the very corporations he is supposed to be regulating. All the while, he has consistently ignored input from the American public, as well as from pretty much anyone who isn’t a potential donor. Now under the cloud of more than a dozen investigations, Zinke might have become so besmirched that even Trump finds him too much to stomach. 

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