Recent federal court and administrative decisions have opened the door to potential ownership of U.S. trademarks by our communist friends in Russia (Stolichnaya vodka) and Cuba (Havana Club rum). In this environment it is ironic that the trademarks associated with America’s own national treasures, specifically Yosemite National Park, are being controlled – some would say ransomed – by a disgruntled park concessionaire, to the chagrin of the federal government and at the expense of the American people.
I refer to the Court of Federal Claims litigation brought against the National Parks Service by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc., which has held the concessionaire’s contract at Yosemite since 1993. Under the agreement, DNC manages the park’s hospitality venues and programs, providing lodging, retail, recreational and food services to over four million annual visitors to Yosemite.
Among Yosemite’s iconic buildings and landmarks, some listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Curry Village camping destination, and Badger Pass ski area. As it turns out, DNC owns federal registrations for these and dozens of other park trademarks, including Yosemite National Park itself, registered in connection with the various and sundry apparel and souvenir items available at the park.
Following a bitter bidding war, DNC lost the $2 billion dollar contract to Aramark, effective March 1, 2016. But DNC is not going away quietly, or at least cheaply. DNC’s complaint claims that upon expiration of its agreement, the government must require its successor to pay it “fair value” for transferring the trademarks and other intangible assets associated with the concession. According to DNC’s appraisal, these assets are worth “no less than $44 million.”
The government’s response has been troubling. A recent NPS press release announced that “to eliminate potential trademark infringement issues” brought on by DNC’s registration of “nationally significant” property names “without NPS concurrence,” several iconic park structures will be renamed as of March 1. Among the changes, the historic Ahwahnee will become the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel”; Curry Village will be renamed “Half Dome Village”; and Badger Pass will become the more generic “Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.”
An angry public lashed out at the announcement, with more than 100,000 people signing an online petition imploring DNC to “give up its fight” over the Yosemite names. But it is not at all clear that DNC greed, as opposed to government misdeeds, is to blame for the public’s frustration.
In court papers, the government seems to concede that DNC owns the trademarks, and is entitled to compensation from Aramark—only the amount is disputed. The government assesses the fair value of the marks at $1.6 million, a $42.4 million gap.
Any payment would ultimately pass between private parties, but as of March 1 the dispute will have the very public effect of depriving Americans of the continued enjoyment of the Yosemite names they have known and loved for generations. At the same time, our tax dollars will continue to fund litigation concerning the private ownership of these most public of assets. Worse yet, even in the midst this expensive quagmire, the government appears to be heading down the same path with the new concessionaire: Aramark’s applications for Yosemite Hospitality, featuring a “Half Dome” logo, are now pending.
Theodore Roosevelt, a founding father of the national parks system, compared camping in Yosemite to “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful” than the national parks, he said, “and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
We should move forward by showing the same reverence for Yosemite’s intellectual property. A more reasoned approach would be for the government to own and license the Yosemite marks to its concessionaires, as it does, for example, with the Leconte Lodge property in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The National Park Service itself turns 100 on August 25, 2016, and is planning celebrations to “kick off a second century of stewardship of America’s national parks.” It is time to bring all our national park properties, tangible and intangible, into the fold.