Denali is one of three national parks selected for Subaru’s zero-landfill initiative. The carmaker hopes to develop zero-landfill implementation plans that all 418 national park units can adopt. ©Maureen, flickr

Just about a year ago, on June 8, 2015, the carmaker Subaru of America Inc. and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) announced a partnership. Subaru, which created the first automotive assembly plant in America designated as “zero landfill,” agreed to share its environmental practices with the National Park Service to reduce landfill waste from our national parks. Three parks were selected for the pilot project: Denali in Alaska, Grand Teton in Wyoming and Yosemite in California.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have long been used to provide recreation services and lodging and food concessions in national parks. However, using PPPs to increase management effectiveness and achieve conservation objectives is relatively new.

A lot of goodwill is generated for private companies that appear to have as their only objective the welfare of places such as our national parks. And, as we know, goodwill often turns into sales.

As part of the Zero Landfill Initiative, Grand Teton National Park hopes to reduce 60 percent of its waste from landfills by 2030, getting the park one step closer to zero waste. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

But I wonder how long goodwill alone will satisfy private companies before signage and advertising creep into our most cherished spots?

Converting crud to compost

Each year, 273.6 million national park visitors create more than 100 million pounds of garbage within our national parks. To put that in perspective, that amount of trash would constitute 20 million household trash bags, which—if placed end to end—would stretch from New York to Los Angeles and back again—twice! This total accounts for only the waste managed by the National Park Service and does not include the waste managed by park lodgings, food services, shops or transportation enterprises, which is considerably higher.

In 2013, more than seven million people visited the three parks in Subaru’s pilot project. They collectively generated 16.6 million pounds of waste. Of that amount, 6.9 million pounds were reused, recycled or composted, but 9.7 million pounds were still sent to a landfill, due to geographical isolation or inefficiencies at recycling and composting facilities. By partnering with Subaru, our national parks hope to further reduce waste to landfills, as well as better educate visitors on how to lessen their environmental footprint within the parks.

In 2013, 6.9 million pounds of national park trash was reused, recycled or composted—but that’s not enough. ©Elvert Barnes, flickr

According to Subaru, its U.S. manufacturing plant has sent nothing to a landfill since 2004. Instead, 99.9 percent of its manufacturing waste is recycled, reused or turned into electricity. One of the first steps in the national parks pilot program is to conduct an audit to determine exactly what kind of trash is being produced at the parks and how best to manage it. The long-term objective is to make the parks garbage-free and develop scalable, zero-landfill implementation plans that all 418 national park units can adopt.

Exchanging backlogs for billboards

Pairing a private success story to a public need is a very powerful model, especially in times when conservation and environmental-improvement dollars are scarce. Today, the total backlog of needed maintenance at U.S. national parks totals $11.9 billion. That backlog includes $500 million in needed repairs at Yosemite National Park, $100 million of which is considered critical. Grand Canyon National Park needs $330 million, a large part of which is overdue for wastewater and water-system upgrades.

Some say the National Park Service should consider the potential of using a model similar to its Subaru partnership to tackle its maintenance backlog. They add that the NPS’s authorizing legislation and policies should be modernized to give the agency maximum flexibility in crafting innovative partnerships. Though the National Park Service can already make use of some types of infrastructure public-private partnerships, a 2013 report states “federal statutes and NPS policies place limitations on these types of partnerships.”

Yosemite National Park has a backlog of $500 million in much-needed repairs. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Others strongly oppose business associations between national parks and private companies because they fear the proliferation of corporate logos in our most beautiful places. For their part, corporations say they want access and engagement with park visitors—not billboard impressions. For example, in 2013, Columbia Sportswear—in a partnership with REI and the National Park Foundation (NPF)—sent a group of top Latino bloggers on weeklong national park excursions. The bloggers’ reports on their experiences generated over 60 million impressions for Columbia and NPF that year. Yet, you didn’t see a single Columbia Sportswear sign anywhere in the national parks.

Most of this change in marketing is due to millennials. A socially conscious generation, they expect companies to meet their high standards with responsible and impactful programs. And since they are the largest generation in America, companies need to woo them. Subaru is enabling consumers to be philanthropists, which is what millennials are seeking.

However, when I recently read an online National Public Radio story on private-public partnerships, a sidebar “ad” from Subaru showed up. No, it’s not about buying cars. It’s about zero landfill and the national park initiative. Still, when I click on the “Learn More” button within the ad, I’m taken to a Subaru page where “Vehicles” and “Find a Retailer” tabs show up in the top navigation bar. I can’t help but see them. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Could corporate logos intrude on our most beautiful places? ©Justin R. Gibson

Do you think partnerships between private corporations and publicly held lands are a good idea? Or is it inevitable that such partnerships will eventually result in branding natural areas with ads?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,