What’s Next? ‘Miller High Life Yosemite National Park’?

GELFAND’S WORLD--I had heard about the fight over Yosemite naming rights, but you have to see it to really feel it. In previous years, visitors arriving through the southern entrance would pass the Wawona Hotel.

It let you know that you had arrived after a long drive. When you got to the valley, you might visit the Yosemite Lodge or, once or twice in a lifetime have dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel. You might hear Tom Bopp playing the piano at one of the aforementioned hotels. Now, the only one of those names still being used officially is that of Mr Bopp. Even Curry Village now has a new name plastered on it.

What's going on up there? Let's start with a little quarter-century-old history that most writers seem to have forgotten. 

For close to a hundred years, the concessions in Yosemite Valley were run by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YPCC). It went back to the campground run by the Curry family in the late 1800s, back when Yosemite Valley was accessible by foot and by horse. Long about the early 1900s, cars began to arrive in Yosemite, but it was another decade before ready accessibility on anything but a stagecoach or a saddle was practical. 

For those of us who visited the park in the mid-twentieth century, Camp Curry was available as a cafeteria stop after a long hike. Eventually Camp Curry was renamed Curry Village, but we could handle that little quirk. 

But eventually the Curry family decided to divest, and the YPCC was sold to MCA in 1973. This didn't create much of a stir. In fact, most people weren't even aware that management had changed, because the YPCC name was retained. 

And then MCA was sold to Matsushita Electric of Japan, and this created the frenzy that was so typical of that time. As a country, we were running up large trade deficits. Dollars were being accumulated by foreigners because we were buying the cars and televisions that they made. They needed to park those dollars somewhere. They started buying up American assets. 

So when you drive to Culver City, you see the Sony sign over what used to be one of America's premier movie studios. This was a little embarrassing to the national ego, but it wasn't treated like a national emergency. But the transition of the YPCC to Matsushita was considered to go over the line. It would be something like turning the Statue of Liberty over to a foreign operator.

 

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The solution, such as it was, involved putting the park's concession contract out to bid. The Park Service wanted improvements in maintenance and operations, one group of environmental activists wanted to run the place themselves (see the above linked story from 1990), and corporations which made their money running concessions in sports arenas and hotels saw the possibilities. 

The winner was the Delaware North Corporation. It bought the assets of the YPCC from the then-owners and proceeded to run the place for the next quarter century. Park visitors didn't see radical changes, but prices went up predictably. 

And then the Delaware North contract ran out a couple of years ago, and Aramark won the bid for the current concessions contract. 

And that's where the argument started.

 

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Those of you who want a more detailed account can find it using your favorite internet search engine. Suffice it to say that Delaware North saw an opportunity to squeeze a little more cash out of their former Yosemite National Park concession. How did they do this? 

Simple enough. They just claimed that they owned the rights to all those famous names that park visitors have gotten used to. Curry Village? We own the name. Ahwahnee? We own the name. Yosemite Lodge and Wawona? We own them too. Naming rights for selling shirts saying Yosemite National Park? We claim the trademark rights on those sales.

 

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Of course they were willing to sell those name rights for the right price. Delaware North's idea of the right price was slightly more than fifty million dollars. The National Park Service conceded that Delaware North may have some ownership rights, but figured that the number was more like three or four million dollars. 

So there it stays for the moment. Delaware North claims it owns the intellectual property rights to those names because they bought them from the YPCC when the deal was made back in the 1990s. There is a lawsuit over Delaware North's claims, which may eventually resolve the argument. But in the meanwhile, park visitors are getting a crash course in what it's like to be caught between warring giants.

 

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The Park Service and the new concessionaire, instead of forking over a twentieth part of a billion dollars for the names, did something different. They decided to plaster up some replacement names and then carry on business as usual. Here is a glossary, giving the old name on the left and the new name on the right: 

Wawona = Big Trees Lodge 

Ahwahnee Hotel = Majestic Yosemite Hotel 

Yosemite Lodge = Yosemite Valley Lodge 

Curry Village = Half Dome Village 

Yes, I know that this is ridiculous. The original names are remembered by people who learned them as school children and are now of retirement age. They are remembered by visitors from all around the world. 

This fight makes our country look stupid. 

It's interesting that the park service employees are rather blunt about their contempt for the name changes. Employees of the current concessionaire are equally contemptuous, though sometimes it takes a bit of coaxing to get them to speak out. I should point out that Aramark, their current employer, is against the name changes, so there isn't even a conflict between employer and employee.

 

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The other reality of Yosemite 

A major rain storm caused the Merced River to overflow its banks and cover the roads on both sides of the valley last weekend. The result of all that rainfall is that the falls are spectacular for the moment. People who could get to the valley had a remarkable experience. 

Here's a story told to me by a visitor to Yosemite Falls. He was walking towards the base of the falls from the parking lot when he chanced to stop to take a breath. He made some joking reference to his companion that maybe he wouldn't go all the way to the falls. At that point, a woman from another country -- a complete stranger -- politely suggested that he really should go up to the falls. "It's worth it." He politely thanked her and promised her he would do so. He neglected to tell her that he had been going to those falls for more than 50 years, and wouldn't have missed that viewing for the world. He tells me that it was, indeed, worth it. 

The point of this story is that newcomers to Yosemite Valley seem to have a sort of collective euphoria about the place. It's that kind of experience. It inspires the creation of public benefit organizations dedicated solely to the welfare of Yosemite. 

By the way, Park Service employees and Aramark staffers give road directions using the new names ("Follow the signs to Half Dome Village") but then respond to confused visitor queries: "Yes, that's what used to be called Curry Village."

 

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A few months ago, LA Observed mentioned that the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will soon have the United Airlines name attached to it. 

 

Author Kevin Roderick was caustic: 

"I'm not a fan of most marketing renamings, especially of civic landmarks. This one is especially obnoxious, given the Coliseum's hallowed place in Los Angeles history and sports lore, and its original naming to honor the dead of World War I. There's also so much to make fun of about it."

 

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These naming outrages are two more bits of evidence that the true danger to our freedom and our personal interests comes not so much from the government as from the giant corporations. Governments can of course be dangerous, but our history and culture have provided safeguards. This newer danger is something that the right and the left ought to be agreeing on.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)

-cw