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Corporate Relations And The National Parks: Good Deal?


A partnership between Nature Valley and the National Parks Conservation Association helped support a habitat restoration project last month on land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park that some day could be added to the park. Kurt Repanshek photos.

While corporate support can be vital to the health of national parks, whether to accept that support can be a challenging question, particularly in these times of financial stress and overall declines in charitable giving.

For instance, while the National Parks Conservation Association's underlying mission is to advocate and support the parks, officials there say you won't find them working towards those goals with, for example, companies that own coal-fired power plants that are responsible for airshed problems over places such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But relationships with companies such as Nature Valley, the granola bar maker that has committed upwards of $500,000 to the NPCA for six beneficial on-the-ground projects in places such as Acadia, Joshua Tree, and Yellowstone national parks, make great sense, they say. (Full disclosure: NPCA is a sponsor of the Traveler, and Nature Valley made it possible for the Traveler to attend the restoration project at Joshua Tree last month.)

"They were as concerned as we were about 'greenwashing,'" said Russell Hornbeck, NPCA's director of corporate partnerships, marketing and licensing. "And they wanted to make sure that the funding they were providing to us was going to meaningful work in support of our national parks. And that in turn is why we have these six projects that Nature Valley is funding."

What, You Say, Is Greenwashing?

"Greenwashing" is a term now a quarter-century old, one that was coined in response to the practice by hotels to place signs in rooms saying you could help the environment by not requesting clean towels every day of your stay. Apparently the real motivation was to cut costs on laundry detergent and thus improve the bottom-line. Over time, the term became a perjorative, frequently being attached to companies that, through public relations sleight-of-hand, projected an environmental concern that didn't really mesh with what they really were doing.

Sometimes discerning greenwashing might seem obvious. Remember a few years back when the chiefs of Detroit's three automakers, after being soundly criticized for taking their private jets to testify before Congress for bailout funds, later returned via hybrid vehicles?

But sometimes it might not be so cut and dried. Take the case of Plum Creek Timber Co., the country's largest private landowner. While Plum Creek is seen by some as a villian in northern Maine, where it wants to develop a landscape others are promoting for national park status, in Montana the company donates to and supports the work of the Glacier National Park Fund (more on that in a bit).

Nature Valley's support of the parks seems upfront and free of ulterior motives. True, they brought me and another freelance writer to Joshua Tree National Park on April 16 to kickoff National Park Week at a habitat restoration project it and the NPCA were hosting along with the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

Also on hand was Josh Holloway, one of the stars in the popular Lost television show brought in to help raise the event's profile. And there were T-shirts and goody bags for the volunteers who turned out to work on erasing a dirt road through 957 acres the land trust hopes to convey to the national park, a high-end freelance photographer to document the events, and a hearty BBQ afterwards.

While much higher in profile than the typical volunteer effort hosted by the land trust -- "We don't normally have a check-in table," Nancy Karl, the trust's executive director, joked with the roughly 50 volunteers who turned out -- Nature Valley itself had a relatively low profile.

Oh, everyone who wanted one went home with a box of granola bars and a Preserve the Parks T-shirt (I got the granola bars, passed on the shirt) and a curious-looking clutch purse made out of recycled granola bar wrappers. But the resulting media attention was minimal, if the smattering of results you get by Googling "Nature Valley" and "Joshua Tree" is any indication.

Perhaps the biggest boost -- in addition to the actual restoration work -- went to the Mojave Desert Land Trust. This small, four-staffer nonprofit works to "preserve the fragile ecosystems within the Mojave Desert" in a sprawling, 20-million-acre landscape ranging from the Mojave National Preserve on south to Joshua Tree's southern boundary.

"This sponsorship of an event increases the numbers. That is a high point, that we have so many people participating," said Ms. Karl. "From my chair, the exposure we get by having a national brand sponsor a restoration brings attention to the park, brings attention to the land trust's work."

Granola Bars And National Parks

At General Mills' corporate headquarters in Minnesota, the attention Nature Valley's campaign with NPCA brings to the national parks, as well as the actual restoration work being accomplished, are the goals officials hope to achieved.

"Nature Valley is acutely aware of the fact that our national parks, they’re facing all sorts of budgetary issues right now, and this is an opportunity for us to help out, assist national parks that are so important to us," replied Andrew Lainsbury, a marketing manager for General Mills, which owns the granola bar maker, when asked what motivated the company to partner with NPCA.

(Of course, the obvious tie of granola bars and park visitors isn't lost on Nature Valley either, he acknowledged. “I would say that we love to believe that people who are out in the national parks are eating our products.")

Indeed, it's that connection that made it easy for the company to decide to spend some of its philanthropic dollars -- General Mills donates roughly 5 percent of its pretax profits to charitable causes -- on national park-related causes,  Mr. Lainsbury pointed out during a phone conversation.

“One of the reasons that we’re excited about it is not only because of the need, but it’s also something that is really tied into our brand DNA," he said. "Nature Valley is all about helping to encourage others to enjoy nature, and by getting out and enjoying nature and understanding the beauty of America’s national parks, we like to think that we’re helping to raise awareness and also to, hopefully, raise some funds for the national parks.”

Under the program with the NPCA, Nature Valley has guaranteed a $400,000 contribution to the park advocacy group, and will add up to another $100,000 when consumers enter online the UPC codes on specially marked boxes of granola bars that are expected to reach grocery stores this summer. To help promote the campaign, Nature Valley has created both a special website for the campaign and launched a Facebook page dedicated to the effort. So far more than 415,000 people have "liked" the site, and more than 3,300 park photographs have been uploaded to it.

The on-the-ground work started with the Joshua Tree event back on April 16, and now Nature Valley and NPCA are looking ahead to help build the Duck Brook Village connector trail at Acadia National Park; work on projects to protect and improve wetlands for wildlife and plant species at Biscayne National Park; launch projects to protect migration corridors for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park; do habitat restoration work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that will benefit endangered fish and other species, and; work to protect migrational routes for Yellowstone National Park pronghorn antelope.

Vetting Potential Partners

Back at the NPCA, Mr. Hornbeck said the nonprofit vets potential partners, such as Nature Valley, before agreeing to do business with them.

"In some form or fashion we’re going to support initiatives around national parks. But we have a very involved set of guidelines and review process for our corporate partnerships," he said.

When companies approach the NPCA, said Mr. Hornbeck, their proposals are reviewed both by the organization's president, Tom Kiernan, and members of the organization's executive team. If Mr. Kiernan "senses that there are some issues with the type of partnership or the partner in general, then he will take it to our board."

There are times when proposed partnerships obviously don't make sense, said Mr. Hornbeck.

"We will never enter into partnerships where there are issues," he explained. "Any organization that’s involved with lawsuits related to national parks or any organizations that we feel is doing harm to national parks. There’s some coal-fired power plants that we feel are putting dirty air into national parks, and so that’s an example of an organization or company that we wouldn’t want to work with."

Of course, there are cases when partnerships made with, or donations taken from, some companies might seem questionable. Why, for instance, did NPCA come to an arrangement with Arrowhead bottled water? After all, studies show bottled water is no better for you than most tap water and plastic bottles are a source of pollution.

“That was a very tough one for us, no question. Probably the toughest one that we grappled on and went back and forth," Mr. Hornbeck said of the Arrowhead arrangement. "Ultimately, in researching the company, seeing all their sustainability issues, ultimately I think our stance and position on bottled water is we support responsible use of bottled water.

"And then, we decided in part that they were as environmentally conscious as any bottled water organization in terms of they use less plastic in their bottled water than any other bottled water company, they have localized sourcing, so they have less of a carbon footprint in getting those bottles into stores and ultimately into people’s homes," he said.

The Nature Valley proposal was appealing, however, in large part because of the on-the-ground aspect of it, he said.

Villian, or Friend?

But what happens when Plum Creek comes calling with money in hand? In northern Maine the company has been trying to gain approval to develop a resort and residential area on nearly 17,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region that many would like to see become home to a Maine Woods National Park.

But in Montana, where the company owns more than 900,000 acres, it is a friend of the Glacier National Park Fund. Just the other day it presented the fund with $3,000 to "help support the Reconnecting Children with the Outdoors program in Glacier National Park."

"Connecting children (and adults) with nature today is directly related to developing their stewardship ethic so they will be willing to take action to care for parks, forests and nature tomorrow," fund officials said. "The fund has supported this Glacier program since 2009 by helping fund family workshops and adult professional workshops for those who work with youth."

Jane Ratzlaff, the fund's executive director, said Plum Creek "has been a great neighbor. They definitely have several programs that try to educate young people about preservation, and how important it is, and getting kids outdoors. They’ve definitely been a good neighbor, and a good supporter of ours.”

As does NPCA, Ms. Ratzlaff said her organization vets prospective partners and donors.

"We definitely want to make sure that corporations are walking the talk and educating people. I think more and more corporations are realizing that their habits haven’t been as great and are trying to look at ways of changing some of the things they’re doing," she said Friday.

"Like any large, large organization, it’s like a big moving ship that’s hard to change directions. But I think that there’s definitely been a lot of the spirit in management that wants to figure out how to be more helpful, and how you can balance the bottom line, what their stakeholders want as well as what’s best for the environment and for the public."

In the Columbia Falls, Montana, area, Plum Creek annually hosts a forest exposition. Last year it attracted roughly 4,000-5,000 kids who were involved in outdoor programs that touched on 'leaving no trace' and why it's important to protect and preserve places such as Glacier, Ms. Ratzlaff said.

While the country's current financial situation has left the National Park Service cash-strapped and in need of all the support it can get, public and private, that doesn't mean you'll see NPCA welcoming all comers in the cause of helping the parks, said Mr. Hornbeck.

“We’re just not out there taking money wherever we can get it. We certainly have a process in place," he said. "Like I’ve said, we’ve turned down some situations and others we debate back and forth. Hopefully we’re making all the right decisions.”

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If Corporate America can stand the thought of an NPS that stands firmly with the mantra "Give us your money and keep your products and services FAR away from our properties" then I say fine, take the money and run.  The last thing our public lands need is more McDonald wrappers blowing around from the clowns who don't know what a garbage can is for, or for the golden neon of Best Western sprouting up within park boundries, or a L.L. Bean outfitter at every camp ground and the associated billboard nonsense that would accompany such development.
Of course that's all based on the NPS having the stones to chance walking away from the prospects of an influx of much needed cash which, as the federal government has time and time again demonstrated it's incompetence in even passing a general operating budget without tapping monies we as a nation don't have for their own local pork constituents and lobbyists, is now needed from an external entity since it's also obvious that the REAL people in charge of funding are too irresponsible and short-sighted to invest in our country's future.  So at some point in the not too distant future we will most likely be in the "there goes the neighborhood" and "I remember when" mode when it comes to our public lands.

Go to the St. Louis Arch for the "Fair St. Louis" July 4th event and you will see a massive sign over the stage "Budwiser Salutes the National Park Service."  I cannot think of anything more offensive and inappropriate. This is the type of thing the NPS managers work on these days, getting more money to sustain a rudderless and increasingly irrelevent government agency.  There was a time that the NPS was regarded as the moral standard of the U.S. Government and was rewarded by the public and the congress with support and funding.  Today, the parks themselves are the only thing proping up this poorly managed and led agency.  The agency has no moral compass, as evidenced by thier willingness to whore out our parks to corporate interests and influence.  This is what the era of "partnering" gets you.  Partnering is a code word for compromise.  There is little room for compromise when your mission is to "...preserve, unimpaired for future generations..."   It has been painful to watch this great agency loose its standing as a well managed and highly regarded government agency.  This generation of NPS managers have failed to protect its agency legacy.

Lone Hiker: "If Corporate America can stand the thought of an NPS that stands firmly with the mantra "Give us your money and keep your products and services FAR away from our properties" then I say fine, take the money and run."

Response: There is a tendency to believe that some are on a higher mission than corporate America when invoking the environment. Sometimes there seems to be NO difference when comparing with National Politics.

Lady Bird Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson's wife) had a national campaign to lesson the impact roadside advertisements had at blocking the views to our natural vistas. Maybe someone can explain the difference between the the attached sign picture and a theoretical sign for a corporate interest.  So much personal, corporate, environmental and political ambitions have found cover in "Greenwashing:).  Gotta get the message out I suppose but at this spot it doesn't seem appropriate.

Chevron paid for the majority of the rebuilding of the Lower Yosemite Fall area that was completed in 2005. I also remember going on a naturalist guided activity at Bryce Canyon on the official NPS schedule of activities. The naturalist was from a private organization and wore a uniform with a prominent Ford Motor Co logo on her sleeve.

The April 18 ceremony at the base of the falls will include National Park Service and Yosemite Fund officials, representatives of Chevron Texaco (a partner in the largest public/private project ever undertaken in Yosemite) and Yosemite Valley Elementary School students.

Nature Valley is an incredible spokesperson for the Parks and conservation on their Facebook page.  I have been impressed at how much they work to get the NPS message - and natural history knowledge - out.  Don't want to see granola bar wrappers blowing around the parks either,  but do like the corporate interest.

I'm not sure if I care for the series of Nature Valley commercials that has been airing over the past few years. They show scenes made to look like someone has spend hours getting to some remote location. One of them shows Convict Lake in California which is an area with docks, and supposed "resort" lodging. Then there's the one in the Bitterroot Mountains, which I was told was filmed just off of a parking lot but made to look like it's deep in the backcountry.

Hey YPW would it have been better to hike an entire film crew and equipment into the back woods with generators and all to film in a spot few people would recognize as being really remote? Better yet let them drive ORV's or helicopter in!

I also like the fact the Toyota donated like 20 million a few years back and no one said a word

Hey YPW would it have been better to hike an entire film crew and equipment into the back woods with generators and all to film in a spot few people would recognize as being really remote? Better yet let them drive ORV's or helicopter in!

  Well - Everest IMAX was filmed with maybe a couple of crew members lugging along the heavy cameras and film.  They didn't need generators since they filmed using natural light.

REI has a series of commercials which were actually filmed in backcountry locations. Of course they didn't look to be heavily computer edited with a soft look like the Nature Valley commercials. Also - I don't really consider the stuff great as trail food. I know it's fantasy that all of a sudden the eater turns into an attractive blonde after munching a granola bar.

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