In a move that stunned the Mountain Area and people across the United States, the National Park Service announced last week it will change the names of multiple historic landmarks in Yosemite National Park due to a legal dispute with the park’s outgoing concessions company.
On March 1, The Ahwahnee hotel will become The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Badger Pass Ski Area will change to Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, Curry Village will become Half Dome Village, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls will become Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Wawona Hotel, attended by such guests as President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, will be named Big Trees Lodge.
“While it is unfortunate that we must take this action, changing the names of these facilities will help us provide seamless service to the American public during the transition to the new concessionaire,” Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said in a press release. “Yosemite National Park belongs to the American people. This action will not affect the historic status of the facilities, as they are still important cultural icons to the National Park Service and the public. Our stewardship of these properties is unwavering.”
Raising the stakes
The changes come during an ongoing, high-profile legal battle over the names between the park service (NPS) and the company formally known as DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc., a subsidiary of Delaware North which is based in Buffalo, New York.
In a lawsuit filed last September, Delaware North contended its intellectual property at the park, including trademarks over the changing names, was worth $51 million.
The complaint can be viewed at http://bit.ly/235FgY2.
In a 25-page response, Justice Department attorney John Robertson wrote that value was “improper and wildly inflated,” and said the trademarks were valued at $1.63 million. That value later changed to an estimated $3.5 million.
DNC has been running Yosemite’s concession operations, including hotels, restaurants, retail locations and more since 1993, and competed for the contract’s renewal last year.
But in June, the park service instead awarded a lucrative deal to Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based customer service company Aramark, at an estimated value of $2 billion over the 15-year contract.
Within hours of the park service announcing the name changes Jan. 14, the public’s response was swift, with many Mountain Area residents, officials, and national groups shocked or enraged.
“I think Delaware North sucks,” Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said. “I can’t believe they think they can just come in, take the names, and leave. This is a national monument, a world monument, and they shouldn’t be allowed to do things like this.”
“I was saddened,” said Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “I was sad that they have to change them because there’s so many people with so many memories of these places ... the names may change, but the experience, the adventure, are all going to be the same. I applaud NPS for making this hard decision to protect the visitor experience.”
A day after the planned changes were announced, the Sierra Club, with 2.4 million members, demanded the company withdraw its lawsuit in an op-ed piece for Outside magazine.
“(Delaware North) makes a routine business practice of stealthily gathering up rights to names synonymous with pieces of America, privatizing names widely regarded as in the public domain, including the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Space Shuttle Atlantis,” wrote Dan Chu, a campaign director for Sierra Club.
Delaware North responds
Under a Freedom of Information Act request by McClatchy DC, annual evaluation reports showed park officials praised the work of Delaware North, but Aramark was still chosen for the contract.
In a release issued after the park service announced its plans, Delaware North said the move was an act of unfair leverage.
“DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. is shocked and disappointed that the National Park Service would announce unnecessary changes to the beloved names of places in Yosemite National Park, trying to use them as a bargaining chip in a legal dispute involving basic contract rights,” the statement read.
Delaware North contended they were required by NPS to buy “the assets” of a previous concessionaire in their 1993 contract, at a cost of $115 million in “today’s dollars,” including at least one trademarked name, The Ahwahnee. They said the new company must make the same purchases when taking over as part of the contract’s terms.
Litigation is also underway over Delaware North’s trademark of the name Yosemite National Park. The Boston Globe reported the company applied to trademark the sole word “Yosemite” on Sept. 30, 2015, after it filed its lawsuit against the park service.
The company, which will continue to own Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, is similar to other concession businesses with service contracts in several national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, and holds numerous trademarks over various Americana.
The full release can be seen at http://prn.to/1mZM3BQ.
The company added it didn’t want to see the names changed, and offered to license them for free as court issues are resolved.
“All we want in this is fair and just treatment from the National Park Service and for it to follow the letter of our contract,” the release reads. “We fulfilled our obligations in 1993, we have been proud and exemplary stewards of Yosemite National Park for the last 22 years, and we have demonstrated our genuine desire to resolve this matter for the last 18 months.”
Park service counters
In an interview with Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman, a much different tale was told, dating back to this dispute’s beginnings in the 1980s.
In the late 80s, Gediman said, concessionaire services at Yosemite were provided by Yosemite Park & Curry Company, which owned buildings in the park including The Ahwahnee, Curry Village, and others.
When Curry Company’s parent company Music Corporation of America was purchased in 1990 by Japanese business Matsushita, which wanted out of Yosemite concessions, Gediman said Delaware North, as DNC, stepped in.
“The government sort of said okay, Delaware North, if you want to buy these buildings and take over, that’s fine, but you have to turn around and sell them to us,” Gediman said. “The government felt no private company should own buildings or other facilities in national parks.”
In the early 1990s, before DNC’s initial concessionaire contract, Gediman said DNC sold the buildings to the government for around $160 million at the time.
As part of the 15-year contract signed in 1993, Gediman said DNC took over tangible assets such as bedspreads in hotels or a Zamboni at the Curry Village ice rink, as well as intangible assets like logos, slogans, and customer databases.
And that’s where, from the park service’s view, the dispute arose.
“Somewhere between 2002 to 2003, Delaware North began to apply for trademarks to say they own the names to the buildings, and they didn’t tell us,” Gediman said. “We didn’t know they filed these trademarks.”
If all those claims are true, why didn’t the park service know about the trademarks?
Grace Liu, intellectual property counsel for the California State University system, said that’s likely due to the 1993 contract.
“These sorts of issues weren’t things people thought about in the early 1990s,” Liu said. “There’s probably nothing that prohibited the company from trademarking things, or requiring them to notify the parks. This is just something the park service didn’t think about. They were thinking about the land, not intellectual property.”
Gediman said when purchasing the buildings from Delaware North, the park service assumed the term “intangible assets” applied to the names as well.
“We always felt that the names went along with the sale,” Gediman said. “We didn’t feel Delaware North was going to say ‘hey, let’s wait a few years and claim ownership of these names later.’”
Liu said it’s all but certain NPS is taking a closer look at their contracts as a result.
“This will probably be a lesson for Yosemite and others in the future to say when they allow someone to run a concession service or hotel, all intellectual property still belongs to the parent company, whether themselves or others,” Liu said. “Intellectual property is a very big issue in the internet age, and concession and business contracts are far more complicated than they were in 1993.”
Aramark agreed to pay for tangible and intangible assets when chosen for the contract last year, Gediman said.
Yosemite’s new names are planned for March 1, the same day Aramark’s subsidiary begins its concessionaire duties.
Aramark spokesman David Freireich said the company is committed to a smooth transition, whatever takes place.
“I think it’s important for the local community and visitors to realize that as the properties are being renamed, new and returning visitors can still count on us to deliver the great experiences and memories they expect and deserve,” Freireich said.
Aramark also has a position on the trademarking battle, he added.
“As far as the names themselves in the dispute, as a company, we firmly believe the names and trademarks in all national parks, not just Yosemite, belong to the park service and the American public,” Freireich said.
Yosemite National Park welcomes around 4 million visitors every year.