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(DV) Berkowitz: "Villains Honoring Villains"







“Villains Honoring Villains”
by Bill Berkowitz
November 30, 2005

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“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

-- Wallace Stegner, 1983

In mid-October, The Yosemite Fund, a private-sector partner of Yosemite National Park, announced that it bestowed its "Corporate Protector of the Year" award on Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. (DNC), at a ceremony held October 1 at Yosemite's Wawona Hotel. Bob Hansen, the President of The Yosemite Fund gave the award to Kevin Kelly, the President of DNC Parks & Resorts, and thanked him for the contributions the company has made "to the Campaign for Yosemite Falls, a monumental restoration project spearheaded by The Yosemite Fund in 1997 which came to fruition in April 2005."

In a press release dated October 14, Hansen said that the award was given to acknowledge the company's "12 years of exceptional support, including their generous annual donations and exemplary teamwork with the National Park Service to assist with the Yosemite Falls project," and for its "environmentally-friendly practices during their tenure as concessionaire in Yosemite."

"Through its GreenPath initiative, Delaware North has eliminated toxic chemicals, and instituted a phenomenal recycling program that reduces waste and preserves the environment and its resources," Hansen said.

On the same day, a US Forest Service news release announced the issuing of a 158-page concessionaire prospectus entitled "A Prospectus for the Delivery of Visitor Services, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument."

The document noted that "Offered opportunities include food service, retail sales, educational book sales, and optional museum and theater operation at Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center; retail sales, educational book sales, and optional mobile food and sundries vending at Johnston Ridge Observatory; and options to provide mobile food and sundries vending at other locations along SR504, and to develop rustic lodging and/or RV camping facilities ... Applicants whose proposals provide the Required Services specified for a complex will also be offered the opportunity to provide outfitter and guide services within the MSHNVM, including motorized and non-motorized winter activities, hiking tours, climbing tours, mountain biking tours and helicopter tours."

In a series of e-mails -- one titled "Villains Honoring Villains," and the other "Hey you, 'ya wanna buy a National Volcanic Monument?" -- Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, a grassroots environmental organization that has been involved with public land management issues for more than a decade, commented on the Yosemite award ceremony, and the Mount St. Helens prospective sell-off.

"Bluntly stated," Silver's first e-mail read, "the Delaware North Companies -- with $1.6 Billion in annual revenues -- is quickly taking control of America's National Parks, and The Yosemite Fund is perhaps the best example where private philanthropy is used as a substitute for Federal funding so as to help advance a larger privatization agenda." When you combine these things, "you get the Yosemite Fund conferring upon Delaware North its "Corporate Protector of the Year" Award."

In a subsequent message regarding Mount St. Helens, Silver mused: "Would any of you like to partner with me and buy ourselves control of a few hundred thousand acres of prime recreation lands - not to mention access to a couple of million paying customers?"

Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts (website) is "a leading hospitality provider with significant experience in hotel, retail, food service, recreation and transportation operations. The company's portfolio includes historic properties in North America, such as Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; Yosemite, Sequoia, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks; Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds; Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite; Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa; Niagara Falls State Park; Jones Beach; Deer Creek Resort & Conference Center; Old Town San Diego; the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and Denver; and The Lodge & Conference Center at Geneva State Park, Ohio."

Giving Delaware North the award, Silver wrote, is no different "than the villainous" American Recreation Coalition -- a champion of motorized recreation and public/private partnerships on public lands -- "giving Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton -- leading the way toward commercialization and privatization of America's public lands -- or Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) - who has been spearheading the drilling of the Arctic National Reserve -- its much-coveted 'Great Outdoors Award.'"

In an e-mail exchange, Silver pointed out that, "Today when you visit Yosemite Valley, for example, virtually every product, good or service you consume is provided by Delaware North Companies (DNC). If you purchase a sandwich and chips, those chips are private-labeled DNC-brand chips. The National Park Service collects a small cut from DNC's take and because Congress and the President are literally starving park service budgets, the NPS has a direct incentive to encourage visitors to spend and consume."

Over the past 15-plus years, Silver added, "the Yosemite Fund, a tax-exempt corporation, has funneled more than $20,000,000 into that park, much of it coming from corporate donor and much of that money being spent on projects of interest to the Yosemite Fund."

The Yosemite Fund's website lists a group of corporate partners that pony up at least $5,000, and in exchange get the prestige of being associated with Yosemite as well as more tangible rewards including having their names placed on the "Honor Wall at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center," receiving recognition in publications such as the Fund's annual report, getting listed on the webpage and receiving special "invitations to an annual event in Yosemite and Fund holiday party." It is not much of a price to pay for companies like Chevron, Coca-Cola of California, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Bank of America that then can call themselves friends of Yosemite.

Even prior to billions spent on the war on terrorism, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the recent series of natural disasters that laid waste to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans -- which will cost additional billions -- the National Parks Service was on shaky grounds, going through a major funding crunch. According to a recent report in The Salt Lake Tribune, that funding crunch has turned into a crisis "and it's getting worse, not better. The backlog of park maintenance projects continues to grow, staffing has been sliced to the marrow and vital science and restoration work is being delayed, if not shelved."

Crisis in America's National Parks

For more than a decade, Scott Silver has been the Paul Revere of the environmental movement. Instead of riding a horse around the countryside shouting "the privatizers are coming, the privatizers are coming," from his Bend, Oregon office, Silver has been sounding the alarm about the privatization of America's public lands for more than a decade via his valuable web site, and through a steady stream of e-mail alerts.

In a 1994 speech at the Cato Institute, a Washington, DC-based free-market think tank, entitled "Privatizing the Planet: An Alternative Vision of Environmental Protection," Senator Malcolm Wallop maintained that "privately owned resources have been better protected than their politically managed counterparts" and concluded that "the air, the water, most species of mammals and fish and public lands have no private owners, [therefore] they have few effective protectors and defenders"

Recently, The George Wright Forum (Volume 22, #2) devoted a special issue to the privatization of the national parks. According to Silver, The George Wright Society is "well respected and mainstream and Forum is read by park managers all around the world." Silver pointed out that "the fact that it did a special edition on privatization is significant in its timing. Two of the pieces were written by pro-privatization libertarians, and the idea was to present all sides of the debate."

To Silver, "the pro-privatization articles confirmed the threats to which the anti-privatization people pointed, and on the whole, the special issue was 'fair and balanced.'"

Silver's essay, which concludes the special issue, looks at the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program -- authorized by Congress in 1996 as a rider to the Department of the Interior appropriations bill -- and its impact on the privatization of America's public lands. In short, Fee-Demo allowed "land managers to collect fees for a wider range of products, goods, and services ... [and] retain the fees they collect." Through this "alternative funding mechanism Congress was free to slash allocated funding and to force land managers to become reliant upon user fees, concessionaire fees, public-private partnerships, volunteerism, and other funding."

According to Silver numerous pro-privatization think tanks support Fee-Demo: "Extremists seek to halt all funding of the national parks and public lands in order to create incentives to ensure that these lands become self-funding at a minimum, and preferably profitable." Land managers would ascertain the value of the resources on land it oversees and then "would sell or lease rights to those commodity values and keep the monies received."

In light of a recent extreme proposal by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo and the Bush Interior Department "to scale back and commercialize the park system to help meet its budget needs," Subcommittee Chairman Mark Souder, R-Ind., and his fellow members stopped off in Flagstaff, Arizona in the fifth of a six-stop fact-finding mission.

However, Rep. Pombo's proposal was not the only piece of bad news coming down the pike. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a "leaked memo draft" written by Paul Hoffman, the Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, "proposed revisions of park management policies that would allow cell phone towers, low-flying tour flights and all-terrain vehicles in parks, expand snowmobile access and would limit park managers' authority to prevent development."

"We don't like what we see," Richard Smith of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, told the Subcommittee. "We are saddened to watch the ongoing efforts by the political leadership of the [Interior] Department and the Park Service to privatize our national park system, a system that author Wallace Stegner called 'the best idea America ever had.'"

Acknowledging that there needed to be some serious thinking about how to deal with the Park Service's diminishing budgets, Rep. Souder said, "Parks won't be sold. I can guarantee you that," Souder said. "But commercialization in the parks is a very tough challenge. How far and where are we going to go in allowing it? It's a valid question."

"Representative Souder asked exactly the right question," Silver explained in an email. "As of yet, no one is ready to completely sell off the National Parks, though some have made such threats. Selling parks would be the ultimate privatization step. And that is not how privatization is occurring. It is happening, instead, through a series of incremental steps."

Silver said that the privatization process has been accelerating over the past decade, and unfortunately, "very little significant resistance is being put up. These days there seems to be a sudden uproar about efforts to sell the Parks, but selling parks is not the threat we're facing today and we would be misled if we believed otherwise."

A July 1997, government-issued report titled "Terms Related to Privatization Activities and Processes" spelled out the numerous issues facing America's public lands including Asset Sale, Commercial Activities, Contracting Out, Divestiture, Franchising Of External Services, Franchising Of Internal Services, Government Corporations, Government-Sponsored Enterprises, Joint Ventures, Outsourcing, Privatization, Public-Private Partnership, Service Shedding, User Fees, Volunteer Activities, and Vouchers.

"Today, every one who cares about America's public lands should be fighting the privatization steps laid out in that 1997 document," said Scott Silver. "If we do not do so today, we will soon enough be fighting to prevent the sale of our nation's crown jewels."

Five years ago, "I gave a presentation to the Society for Environmental Journalists and warned them about how fee-demo would lead to the privatization of places such as Mount St. Helens." Ironically, Silver pointed out, the SEJ annual meeting that year "was held inside of one of Mount Helens' visitor centers, which are now up for bids."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Thanks to Laura Ross for her research assistance.

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