Trashing the Grand Canyon

Every year, more than 4 million visitors come to see the awesome majesty of Grand Canyon National Park — the soaring rock formations, the mighty erosive power of the Colorado River, the plastic bottles strewn along the trail, the chipmunks chewing on twist-off bottle caps....

Plastic bottles are the biggest single source of trash found in the park, according to Stephen P. Martin, who formerly oversaw the Grand Canyon for the National Park Service. Martin had a smart plan to solve this problem by banning the sale of disposable water bottles inside the park. But according to the New York Times, that idea was crushed by higher-ups who were apparently worried about losing sponsorship money from Coca-Cola, which has donated more than $13 million to the National Park Foundation. The about-face is not just a concern for national park patrons. Money from Coke also adds life to California state parks.

In a desperate attempt to keep parks open amid devastating budget cuts, state officials are soliciting partnerships with companies such as Coca-Cola, which has been teaming up with supermarket chain Stater Bros. to raise money through in-store promotions in which the purchase of $10 worth of Coca-Cola products results in a $1 donation to state parks. The $2 million raised by the program so far has helped replant burned trees in Cuyamaca Rancho and Chino Hills state parks; in return, Coke has gotten an opportunity to burnish its image and the right to put its logo on interpretive signs in the parks. We've already pointed out that this risks opening the parks to ever more obtrusive advertising, but the Grand Canyon incident reveals an even bigger concern: that corporate sponsors might exercise undue influence over park policy.

Park Service chief Jon Jarvis says Coca-Cola had no impact on his decision to table the water-bottle ban, claiming he was concerned about concessions contracts and public safety. Yet emails leaked to the New York Times indicate that Jarvis wanted to hold off on the ban until getting input from Coke, the National Park Foundation and major producers of bottled water (Coke's Dasani brand is among the nation's biggest). Claims from the ban's opponents that it wouldn't be effective or that it would endanger thirsty hikers, meanwhile, don't hold water. A similar program at Zion National Park in Utah cut down dramatically on trash, and Grand Canyon patrons in search of cold water would still have been able to buy it, along with reusable bottles, at stations throughout the park.

Parks are a public treasure, and park budgets are relatively tiny in the grand scheme of state and federal expenditures. Corporate sponsorships can help keep them running when times are tough, but it's a very risky choice. The public should find a way to protect and maintain public resources.

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