Grand Nike National Park?

Companies may soon be able to sponsor natural wonders

Next time you see a poster of a panoramic scene at Yosemite or Yellowstone, look closely and you may find "Proudly sponsored by Nike" (or "Kellogg's," or "Miller Lite") somewhere in the fine print. An unlikely bipartisan alliance has suddenly pushed the idea of corporate sponsorship of national parks front and center on the political agenda. Both environmental champion Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Senator Frank H. "Mr. Clear-cut" Murkowski (R-Alaska) back the notion. On Sept. 25, Murkowski included it in a catchall National Parks bill with a fair chance of passing Congress.

Why is this idea suddenly so popular? Companies, which would pay up to $10 million a year each for the right to advertise that they're the sponsors of the national parks, love it. Plus, notes Babbitt, "our national park system is desperately in need of money." Sponsorships would raise $120 million a year--which helps a lot in closing the nation's $4 billion backlog for routine park and monument maintenance.

Predictably, the idea has conservationists in a lather. It has been lampooned by Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip and lambasted by major environmental groups. Their fear: This is the first step toward desecration of national treasures. And the Interior Dept. would be accepting cash from companies while policing their compliance with environmental regulations. "It presents serious conflicts," huffs Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NO BILLBOARDS. Supporters contend there are safeguards against overcommercialization. Companies' names wouldn't even appear within the park. All sponsors would get is the right to trumpet their generosity.

President Clinton may veto the plan anyway because it is included in a bill that would also ease logging restrictions on some Alaskan lands. But The National Park Service supports the idea, and the issue won't die even if the current plan fizzles, pledges Jim Maddy, head of the nonprofit National Park Foundation, which would administer the program. It could give new cache to old beer slogan, "From the land of sky-blue waters."

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