Worries over Yellowstone National Park, its funding or lack thereof, and the c-word — commercialization — seem to erupt as regularly these days as the park's geysers. Last year, the uproar was over bio-prospecting in Yellowstone. This year, it is about sponsorship banners on a Web site with footage of Old Faithful.
National Park Service director Bob Stanton nixed a plan last month that could have brought in $300,000 annually to Yellowstone and possibly even more financing in the future. Entrepreneurs at Yellowstone thought they would take advantage of a popular Web site showing live coverage of Old Faithful to bring in some funds. The Park Service's most popular Web site would display a banner with a link to a sponsoring corporation's or individual's Web site in return for $5,000. The banner would go up for six days. It was a creative solution intended to provide some funding for a park beleaguered by crumbling sewage systems, worn down trails and roads with potholes more at home on a bombing range than in a national treasure.
How successful the program could have been will never be known because of fears over commercialization. Tony Jewett of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) called the plan the first step towards increasing commercialization of the national parks. Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) spouted sound bites, saying, "People want signs pointing them toward Old Faithful, not Old Spice." Park Service Director Stanton concurred by preemptively ending the program.
And yet it was commercialization that gave us Yellowstone. The Northern Pacific Railroad recognized the area's jackpot tourist potential and lobbied Congress for the establishment of the first national park. Railroad officials might have preferred to simply buy the area and its magnificent thermal features, but in the late 1800s that was not an option.
Instead, the Homestead Act was parceling out 160-acre allotments for agricultural production, a use that would have ruined the area as a tourist attraction. When the park was established in 1872 and its beauty preserved, no one was concerned that the railroad would make a healthy profit delivering tourists to the area.
But as time has passed in the West, commercialization has become a dirty word when paired with our national parks. It has also become one that lacks a clear definition.
Hasn't every Yellowstone visitor who ever bought a ridiculous moose-head hat, paid too much for a scoop of strawberry ice cream at Old Faithful, or bought a brand-name soda commercialized the park? Are the postcards, T-shirts and stuffed animals sold in Yellowstone not commercial enterprises? The harm to national parks from commercialization is equally unclear. Where the inadequacy of the current funding system for national parks is tangible, the damage of commercialization is not. Harm is a backlog of maintenance repairs a mile long and no money to complete those repairs. Harm is tourists trampling the wilderness because trails are falling apart.
Harm is raw sewage dumped into the grassy meadows of Yellowstone because the treatment plant is beyond capacity. Things labeled as commercialization offer to bring in funds to fix these problems. Where is the harm? Groups like the GYC and the NPCA are worried about commercialization of the national park system, yet they allow their own organizations to suffer from it. GYC lists over 100 business operators on its Web site. NPCA's Web site links to an online mall where visitors can buy from more than 80 brand-name stores. Five to fifteen percent of the shopper's purchase benefits the NPCA at no extra cost. Has either organization been damaged by such commercialization? Have their missions been compromised by it? As national parks are publicly owned, it is understandable that we would hold them to a different standard, but that would seem to advocate dealing with the real harms to Yellowstone and other parks that come from a lack of funds. Consider this: The GYC and the NPCA could actually help protect Yellowstone by getting in line to buy a couple banners (and Director Stanton would be wise to sell them).
Demonizing commercialization extends the trend of denigrating all private ventures in land use, but Yellowstone's history explodes that myth. Maybe the Old West had it right. Maybe commercialization is not all bad.
J. Bishop Grewell is a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and an adjunct scholar with the Sutherland Institute, a Utah public-policy research association.