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Are National Parks An Appropriate Backdrop For Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue?


Yellowstone National Park's Lower Falls served as a backdrop for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Swimsuit Issue. This image appeared in National Geographic's May 2016 issue dedicated to Yellowstone.

For many young adolescent boys growing up in the 1960s, the cold winds, ice, and snows of winter met a thaw in February, when a softer, not quite so lusty version of Playboy showed up in mailboxes across the country: Sports Illustrated's annual Swimsuit Issue.

With bikini-clad models such as Elle Macpherson, Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs and Rachel Hunter gracing covers and multiple-page spreads within the covers, the Swimsuit Issue quickly became a marketing success. By 2005 it was estimated that that issue alone generated $35 million in revenue for Sports Illustrated. As the years passed, the editors and art directors have gotten more and more risque, dressing their models in skimpier and skimpier swimsuits, and finally painting suits on them. 

In 2002, a representative for the National Organization for Women said the issue, "promotes the harmful and dehumanizing concept that women are a product for male consumption."

Until recently, national parks have been left out of the Swimsuit Issue, and generally have been promoted by media as wonderful family destinations. But in 2014 the sports magazine requested, and received permission, to shoot in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Bryce Canyon national parks for its 2015 Swimsuit Issue.

An outtake from the Yellowstone shoot (above) was used by National Geographic this year in its May issue, which was dedicated to Yellowstone.

Now, as the Park Service is confronting an issue of sexual harassment and misconduct within its workforce, a watchdog group is questioning whether the agency's decision to permit the pictorials doesn't "undermine" its commitment to root out an institutional "culture of tolerance for sexual harassment." In addition, the Park Service's approval of the photo shoots illuminates the gray area in interpreting the agency's management guidelines and recalls a magazine shoot four decades ago that a former park ranger deemed "extremely offensive."

Back in August 1977 Grand Canyon National Park made a splash in Playboy in a river trip pictorial that raised more than a few eyes, as Roderick Nash noted in Wilderness and the American Mind while discussing the issue of river trip permit allocations:

The Grand Canyon allocation controversy raised the deeper question of what kind of use is most appropriate in a federal managed wilderness. One point of view regarded the large, motorized commercial trips as little more than outdoor parties. Beach volleyball and cold beer highlighted these trips. The customers neither expected nor wanted a wilderness experience. The whitewater rapids might as well have been located in an urban amusement park. The highly publicizied and much photographed river trip that Playboy staged came to represent the problem in many minds. The fact that this kind of Grand Canyon trip used part of the limited visitor quota, and in effect kept wilderness enthusiasts off the river, rubbed salt in the already tender wounds of noncommercial boaters.

Grand Canyon resurfaced early this year in another sexually charged saga; not based on titillation, but rather sexual harassment and misconduct. An Office of Inspector General report given to the National Park Service last year and released to the public in January detailed a 15-year-long chapter of sordid behavior in the park's River District. In the end, the park superintendent retired and the Park Service recommitted itself to root out sexual misconduct and harassment, promising to set up a hotline to which complaints could be voiced, anonymously if desired, and to conduct a service-wide survey to determine how prevalent the problem might be.

Last last month, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell traveled to the Grand Canyon with Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, Intermountain Region Director Sue Masica and incoming Grand Canyon Superintendent Chris Lehnertz to meet with the park's employees, hear their concerns, and discuss how the matter would be addressed.

“That’s unacceptable behavior. It is a failure of leadership. It is something that we have got to address," Secretary Jewell told a small pool of reporters gathered at Hopi Point on the South Rim after meeting with roughly 300 park employees. "I will say that this is a team of employees that wants to move on, that does not want to be defined by the actions of a few."

Objectification, Art, Or Freedom Of The Press?

Ironically, as the National Park Service tries to determine just how extensive sexual harassment and misconduct might be across its workforce of 20,000, questions about the appropriateness of Sports Illustrated's use of national parks in 2015 to show off scantily clad models have surfaced. Not only did the sports magazine stage photo shoots in Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone national parks, at least, but it also produced videos of the models and crews at work in the parks.

Model Jessica Gomes posed in various locations in Yellowstone for the Sports Illustrated shoot.

Some Park Service employees were disturbed by the Lower Falls image that appeared in National Geographic's May 2016 issue.

"Many permanent and seasonal NPS employees (male & female) object to this image, and the message communicated. It could be inferred by Dan Wenk in NPS uniform (elsewhere in the issue) as NPS endorsing or sanctioning this type of behavior," one employee told the Traveler. "At the very least, if NPS says it had no control over what Nat Geo publishes, I believe the powers that be at National Geographic AND the National Park Service would be singing a different tune if it had been Dan Wenk in his underwear instead of his carefully planned and orchestrated NPS Class A dress uniform on the preceding pages."

At National Geographic, Director of Communications Anna Kukelhaus pointed out that the swimsuit photograph was just one of 70 images of Yellowstone contained in the issue.

"As a journalistic publication, we tell multiple aspects of a story. For our Yellowstone issue, we did not want to just showcase the natural and ageless beauty of the park, but to look at how the park is used and how people interact with it," she said. "We think this image represents one of the ways the park is used. It is also important to note that any photo shoot in a national park cannot take place without park permission. Park rangers accompanied the teams to various locations throughout the park during the course of this shoot."

Concern about the propriety of the photo shoots, in light of the ongoing issue with sexual harassment and misconduct in the Park Service, led Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Park Service for:

* All permits issued by NPS to Sports Illsutrated or its employees to conduct a photo shoot or photo shoots on NPS land;

* All records indicating where each Sports Illustrated photo shoot took place, including any NPS staff briefings;

* All correspondence between NPS and Sports Illustrated or its employees regarding photo shoots and/or the publication of photos;

* All correspondence between NPS and Nat Geo or its employees regarding the publication of the Jessica Gomes photo in the magazine’s May 2016 issue.

"We are interested in the records for several reasons," PEER's legal counsel, Laura Dumais, told the Traveler. "First, Jon Jarvis and NPS leadership are currently under fire for fostering a long-term culture of tolerance for sexual harassment, where perpetrators enjoy protection while victims fear to report wrongdoing. If it is true that NPS managers found nothing inappropriate about authorizing the publication of a photo of three fully-clothed men literally in the process of objectifying a near-naked woman in front of an iconic Yellowstone waterfall, then it’s not difficult to understand why NPS has a problem."

In its FOIA request, PEER stated that, "If, in fact, NPS condoned the actions of Sports Illustrated and National Geographic in taking/publishing photos that undermine NPS’s stated commitment to ending sexual harassment in national parks, then this is very important information that the public should know about prior to the centennial celebration. Presented with such information, the public may choose not to attend such celebrations, or individuals may choose to exercise their First Amendment rights to engage in informed public discourse on the issue prior to or during the celebration."

Secretary Jewell's office did not respond to a Traveler request for comment on the appropriateness of using national parks as backdrops for the Swimsuit Issue that, after it's arrival, drew harsh criticism for its cover photo being "100 percent inappropriate" and "obscene," along with more graphic descriptions. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation was so shocked by the covergirl on the 2015 issue that the executive director sent letters to retailers asking that the magazine be removed from public display.

At the Park Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters Tom Crosson, chief of public affairs, would not comment on the appropriateness of the photo shoots or whether the agency approved of the images and videos.

"The National Park Service is obligated to protect the public’s right to free speech in national parks, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. We do not apply a 'morals test' when granting access to our parks for legal activities," he said. "When issuing permits, we do consider factors such as the potential impact to park resources and visitor use. If it is determined that a particular activity would constitute impairment to the park and its resources, or would generate unacceptable impacts as defined by NPS Management Policies, or is prohibited by law, the park would deny the request."

Does Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue Uphold National Park "Values"

The management handbook for national park superintendents, the 2006 Management Policies, contains a section on "Appropriate Uses" of the parks. In that section on page 98, the narrative specifies that, "In exercising its discretionary authority, the Service will allow only uses that are (1) appropriate to the purpose for which the park was established... (emphasis added).

Under the Code of Federal Regulations that discretion was trimmed somewhat, removing the wording pertaining to the purpose for why a national park was established. It does, however, state that permits can be denied if the activity results "in unacceptable impacts or impairment to National Park Service resources or values...'" (emphasis added)

Sports Illustrated's crews and model also visited Bryce Canyon National Park for the 2015 issue.

Mr. Crosson would not respond directly to whether the swimsuit photo shoots were appropriate to the purpose for which Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or Bryce Canyon were established, or whether they diminished the values of the parks.

At Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk said his staff followed guidelines for issuing commerical photography permits when approached by Sports Illustrated.

"Because the project met the legal requirements for this type of permit, specifically that there were no resource or unacceptable impacts to visitor use, we issued the permit," he said in an email. 

The guidelines set down by the Management Policies can be difficult to interpret, said Superintendent Wenk.

"We looked at this permit process objectively in 2014. Perhaps we would look at it differently today," he wrote, adding that through the years he has been told "content could not be a reason for denial of a permit as long as other conditions were met."

"The application of NPS policy that you cited can be interpreted many ways," he continued. "What purpose are you saying is not appropriate to the purpose for which the park was established? If you apply your definition, would advertisements for cars, outdoor gear, swimsuits, pain relief or insurance be appropriate? Where do you draw the line if a manufacturer wanted to advertise kayaks and the model wore a swimsuit that was as revealing as the SI model, appropriate or not?"

At the Coalition To Protect America's National Parks, some members thought the swimsuit permit request should have been denied.

"I don’t see that photos/videos of scantily-clad women in any way is consistent with park values. Moreover, I don’t see how this kind of photography or videography for commercial purposes in the public marketplace is considered freedom of the press or speech under the First Amendment," said Bill Wade, whose 30-year NPS career included the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award.  "I’m sure the (Interior) solicitors – with much more knowledge of the legalities than I have – reviewed all this and approved it, but it seems to me to be a big stretch. One more example of how the policies and laws are gradually becoming more diluted, at the detriment of what national parks stand for."

Added Rick Smith, whose Park Service career included a stint as acting-superintendent at Yellowstone: "Park values are being degraded with this kind of activity.  It reminds me of the Playboy shoot on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, topless models and all. It was extremely offensive."



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We can expect a lot more outrageous exploitation of our parks after the Trumpocalypse:

This is very disturbing for numerous reasons. This year the NPS invited every fourth grader in the U.S. and their families to visit parks and provided a park pass to enable this. Surely this is not the image the NPS wants to display to millions of American families they have expressly invited to visit. Allowing commercial photography of near naked models in provocative poses with iconic and internationally recognizable park features as backdrops and distributed to millions is wrong and sends a terrible message worldwide. Using park features for commercial gain is counter to the very essence of the NPS mission. Blocking public access to very popular park destinations for commercial purposes, filming permits, etc. is against NPS management policies and 36CFR. Increasingly it appears the NPS is losing its way, allowing commercial and political pressures to force things prohibited by law and policy in national parks. There is NO justification for permitting these commercial photo shoots in these iconic locations.


What I see here is not a swimsuit issue. One of the photos doesn't even have all the swimsuit pieces! And these poses. Really?! They're not how real people look when they're outdoors in active wear. In my opinion, it cheapens the NP image... I'd prefer the family friendly one.

I've never had any use for Sports Illustrated, and am not in their target market. Even less so, now.

You know what hurts the National Park Service image?  Slaughtering bison & poisoning streams and lakes.  

People pay to preserve and see the natural beauty of the national parks.  We don't pay to preserve it so that Sports Illustrated can make money off of it at our expense. These preserved national parks should be kept natural and undefiled. 

Thank you Jane Anzelmo, so much for keeping the National Parks free from commercialization, I feel this is the product of the current disregard for the policies long established for our parks. shame on the NPS Director  A sad day indeed. 

Unbelievable. The NPS is really going downhill and I hope PEER gets a full answer to it's FOI. It remindes me of how the 100th aniversary is being used to promote visitation with little mention of the purposes of NP's and the Service as laid out in the founding legislation and subsequent legislation.

"....the Service will allow only uses that are (1) appropriate to the purpose for which the park was established... (emphasis added).

Under the Code of Federal Regulations that discretion was trimmed somewhat, removing the wording pertaining to the purpose for why a national park was established."

I wonder who made the changes?


One important detail that is not included in the article is the fact that during the photo shoot at Yellowstone Falls, three husbands were tossed into the canyon by their wives because they were looking too long at the scenery.

But this is probably a logical extension of NPS endorsement of various beverages that "remove NO from your vocabulary . . . "

And with Trump Jr. as Secretary of the Interior, nothing will be off limits.

After all, isn't it all about MONEY?



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