Environment: OK, Meet You at Eight on Super-Unleaded Loop

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Environment: OK, Meet You at Eight on Super-Unleaded Loop

Hard up for cash. California's state parks reach out to the multinationals
By Bill Donahue

You're wending through an alpine meadow, savoring the melodious twee-twee of the avifauna, when you stumble upon a sign reminding you that you're in Big Mac State Park. You pull out your trail map, which cajoles you to keep shopping 7-Eleven, and then follow the path to the valley below, where the famed Exxon Grizzlies gambol for gawkers.

Far-fetched? Maybe not. In a move that some observers say could spark a national trend, an advocacy group sanctioned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation this month will begin seeking a few proud sponsors to rescue California's cash-strapped natural havens. The nonprofit group, State Park Partners, will target makers of soft drinks, cars, and photographic film in hopes of financing everything from trail repairs to new ranger vehicles.

Marcia Hobbs, the group's president, says that corporate advertising in the parks will be minimal--"nothing more than donor ID on the trail map"--and she insists, "Never in my wildest dreams would we have billboards." Hobbs promises that sponsors will make their real pitches outside the parks, with print and TV ads bearing the California State Parks emblem. Still, some environmentalists have trepidations. Laura Svendsgaard, president of Friends of California Parks, points out that one State Park Partners board member, Robert Katz, has spoken of small signs in lodges, and, well, maybe a few tasteful trailhead placards. "What we're hearing is not consistent," Svendsgaard says, "and we're concerned that this won't be handled properly."

So far, the state parks department has no written rules to govern the advertising. All decisions on sponsors' ads will ultimately be made by the state Parks and Recreation Commission, whose members, fears Wilderness Society communications director Bill Reffalt, will be constantly implored to compromise. "If you were an advertiser," Reffalt reasons, "wouldn't you say, 'C'mon, we gave you a million. Can't you just...' "

Reffalt's skepticism, however, isn't shared by all. Environmental moderates nationwide see sponsorship as a viable way to address a dire problem, the poverty of America's parks, and state legislators in Michigan, Texas, and New Jersey are said to be keeping a close eye on the California program. Perhaps even more telling, the interest is not limited to the local level. In fact, the 450,000-plus-member, Washington, D.C.-based National Parks and Conservation Association has even helped to draft a congressional bill that would allow corporations to sponsor national parks.

That bill is likely to reach the floor next year, but if form holds, chances are it won't be so benign. Its primary sponsor is Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, whose environmental program includes opening Tongass National Forest to logging and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Asked if the proposal was part of a broader agenda, Murkowski responded with the kind of friendly reassurance that greens have come to expect from the senator. "Look," he said, "just read the draft of the bill. I don't have time for this kind of chatter."

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