A decision by the National Park Service to rename iconic commercial sites within Yosemite National Park in the midst of a contract dispute has left park advocates shocked and disappointed.
The historic Ahwahnee hotel, Yosemite Lodge, Wawona Hotel, Curry Village, and Badger Pass ski area will be renamed by March 1, when the park changes over to a new concessioner.
“It's appalling,” says author Kerry Tremain, who wrote the book Yosemite: A Storied Landscape. “Particularly now, when we are in the middle of celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, and Yosemite was absolutely critical to the early park service.”
The National Park Service is locked in a legal fight with DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc., the concessionaire at the park that has operated its hotels, trail rides, bus service, and more since 1993. DNC—part of Buffalo-based Delaware North, which operates facilities in other parks and venues around the world—lost its lucrative contract. The new 15-year, $2 billion contract was granted to a subsidiary of Aramark instead.
In September, DNC sued the federal government, arguing that it needs to be compensated $51 million, largely for trademarks the company filed on merchandise and the hotels and other facilities it operated. The government has said the fees are too high. DNC counters that it had been forced to pay $61.5 million when it first took over the contract from the previous concessionaire, largely for trademarks.
Neal Desai, director of pacific region field operations for the National Parks Conservation Association, says the legal battle could take some time and it’s unclear who will prevail.
In the meantime, the park service elected to change the names to avoid a possible court injunction that could close the facilities. The Ahwahnee Hotel will be changed to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel; Curry Village will be renamed Half Dome Village; Wawona Hotel will be Big Trees Lodge; Badger Pass Ski Area will be Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area; and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls will be Yosemite Valley Lodge. The names were chosen to “minimize the impact on visitors,” according to the park service.
Ownership of the trademark “Yosemite National Park” also may be in dispute, raising questions on whether any merchandise with that name can be sold after the deadline. The name of the park itself is not in jeopardy.
“The idea that a distant corporation could appropriate these names is terrible,” says Tremain. “Are we going to have brand names on El Capitan?” (The renaming decision applies only to commercial structures.)
The Bush administration floated ideas to rewrite the park’s operating manual or sell naming rights to natural features to the highest bidders. The Yosemite dispute also evokes recent battles over naming rights in the Grand Canyon.
Desai says it’s unclear what precedent might be set by the legal challenges and whether other parks face similar risks.
What’s in a Name?
Yosemite’s historic names “mean a lot to people,” says Desai. The Ahwahnee, in particular, has been beloved for generations. Opened in 1927, the hotel was named for Native Americans who lived in the valley, the descendants of whom still work in the park.
Constructed of many natural materials, the Ahwahnee was designed to blend into the environment, says Tremain. “That was kind of a new idea and it became the basis for a style in national parks that was widely copied around the country.”
The other facilities boast similar storied histories. Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the Wawona Hotel when he visited Yosemite with John Muir.
The names of such beloved facilities, Tremain says, should belong to the public and the park’s 4 million annual visitors.