As Beloved Yosemite Landmarks Get Renamed, Use of Temporary Signs Indicate Hope for Trademark Battle Resolution

Wednesday, February 24, 2016
The Ahwahnee Hotel (photo: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.)

By Kurtis Alexander, New York Times


Just days before Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel and other famed sites at the park lose their names to an ugly trademark battle that has left visitors nationwide seething, subtle moves by the National Park Service suggest there's hope the names won't be gone for long.


Yosemite officials say signs at the soon-to-be-rebranded locations, from the Curry Village tent-city to the Badger Pass Ski Area, won't be taken down when their new names take effect Tuesday -- only covered up, so that the old monikers might return.


The park's concessionaire, Delaware North, is scheduled to stop running the park's visitor facilities at the end of the month, but it claims it owns the place names and won't turn them over to the new park operator without a $51 million payment.


Delaware North remains in talks with the incoming concessionaire, Aramark, about the transition. While neither party would comment on any negotiations over the trademarks, park officials said they are hopeful the companies can reach a deal to keep the historic names in place.


Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman said temporary sign covers are being prepared to mark the rechristened spots. Nothing permanent is going in yet, he said.


The short-term signage will identify the Ahwahnee Hotel -- which was built in the 1920s as grand destination that could host presidents and dignitaries, and is believed to trace its name to the local Indian population -- as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, a shift some guests regard as sacrilege.


Curry Village will be changed to Half Dome Village, Badger Pass Ski Area to Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, Wawona Hotel to Big Trees Lodge, and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls to Yosemite Valley Lodge.


Not only will each of these sites be marked differently, but road signs, maps and information packets at the park will also need to change, barring a last-minute settlement. So will countless references to Yosemite in travel books, Internet guides and tour company literature.


The upheaval boils down to a dispute over Delaware North's nearly 25-year-old concessions contract with the Park Service.


The 1993 deal required the Buffalo, N.Y., company to buy the assets of the previous concessionaire, which had owned the visitor facilities, and then turn the buildings over to the park and sell the intellectual property to its eventual successor. The two sides disagree on the scope and value of that intellectual property.


Delaware North claims it acquired the site names when it took over and has since trademarked the titles. That includes even ``Yosemite National Park'' for the purpose of selling T-shirts and other souvenirs, though it's unclear whether the corporation will try to stop such items from being sold.


In a lawsuit filed in September against the Park Service for breach of contract, the company says it wants $51 million from the incoming concessionaire for the names and other intangible property.


Park officials say that the demand is outrageous and that they value Delaware North's intellectual property at no more than $3.5 million. Since the feud went to court, neither side has budged publicly on its position, and the Park Service opted last month to play it safe and simply change the names of the contested sites.


If Delaware North thought the trademark claim could provide leverage to keep the park's concessions contract, as critics have suggested, that power is gone. Philadelphia-based Aramark, which is slated to take over the park's concessions Tuesday, won a 15-year deal in June to manage Yosemite's many campgrounds, restaurants, hotels and recreation activities.


The contract is the most lucrative in the national park system, valued at $2 billion. Aramark officials have said they would like to keep the park's longtime site names, but regardless will do their best to make sure the properties don't lose their historic appeal.


The name changes have been a lot harder on many of the 4 million people who visit Yosemite every year.


``It feels like a personal insult to me,'' said San Francisco resident Elaine Bitzel, who has been visiting the park for decades and argues that the Ahwahnee name is inextricably tied to the history of the place. ``How can we allow some big-money operation to come in here and do that to us?''


The cries of outrage have been heard in Sacramento. This week, a handful of California leaders announced legislation aimed at preventing a similar trademark dispute from playing out in state parks in the future.


The bipartisan bill, whose lead author is Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County), would ban concessionaires from claiming ownership of names associated with a state park, like Hearst Castle or Big Basin. It would also disqualify companies from bidding for a contract if they have trademarked a park name in the past.


``It's just outrageous to me that we could have a dispute that prompts the renaming of places on the national list of historic sites,'' Cooley said. ``If you're engaging in trademarking, you're not the sort of party the state would want to deal with in terms of the stewardship of its treasured parks.''


To Learn More:

Public Outcry over Renaming of Yosemite Landmarks in Trademark Dispute (by Dan Whitcomb, Reuters)

Spurned Yosemite Concessionaire Sues for Naming Rights at the Park (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)   

Yosemite Concessionaire, in Contract Talks, Claims Trademark on Park Landmarks (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)        


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