This trademark fight at Yosemite could mean bizarre things for our national parks.
Yosemite National Park is home to the sprawling, beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel, a historic lodging site, built in 1927 and declared a national landmark in 1987.
But before you start packing your suitcase and pull up "Ahwahnee Hotel" on your travel-deal-website-of-choice to book reservations, there's something you should know:
After 90 years, the Ahwahnee Hotel has a new name — and it's disappointingly generic.
The Ahwahnee Hotel is now The Majestic Yosemite Hotel — and it's not the only Yosemite site to have recently undergone an underwhelming renaming.
Curry Village, a small lodging town in the valley near the famous Half Dome rock formation, is now known as Half Dome Village.
The Wawona Hotel, which was built in 1876, is now known as Big Trees Lodge.
Basically, the original and historic names of many locations in Yosemite have been changed to reflect the jumble of keywords you'd enter in Google if you forgot their real names.
So why all the sudden boring name changes?
If you've ever eaten at a national park (that is, eaten something besides the squished sandwich and granola bar in your backpack), you may have noticed that much of the food is provided by private companies, not the government.
Which, in theory, is pretty cool.
It allows the parks to make money by selling retail and dining space, and park visitors get to come back from their hikes to enjoy perfectly seared, bone-in rib eyes.
Wrong. It turns out that when a company takes over selling food and providing lodging at a national park, sometimes they also get ownership of the historic names of those locations.
Until recently, concession sites at Yosemite were handled by a company called Delaware North, a multibillion-dollar organization that claims to be "one of the largest hospitality management companies serving national and state parks."
Delaware North took over concessions at Yosemite in 1993, and when it did, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Cesaro, it also had to purchase "the assets of the previous concessionaire, including its intellectual property at a cost of $115 million in today’s dollars."
In plain-speak, that means that the rights to names like "Ahwahnee" and "Wawona" were part of the package Delaware North purchased.
In 2015, Delaware North lost a $2 billion bid to renew its contract with Yosemite — and this is where things got sticky for the names of Yosemite's iconic landmarks.
Delaware North had to hand concession rights over to another company called Aramark. Delaware North also demanded to be paid back for the names it bought, asking for $51 million. The government thought that price was a "gross exaggeration" and valued the names at $3.5 million.
That conflict is still settling. But Delaware North has essentially said that while it still wants the $51 million, the National Park Service can keep the names the same ... for now.
The National Park Service then, for some reason (presumably to minimize damages), went ahead and changed all the names in Yosemite anyway.
The NPS even spent an estimated $1.7 million on temporary new signs in the process:
The National Park Service may ultimately win the names back. But for now, staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel or Curry Village is a thing of the past.
To make things even more complicated, Delaware North has also made a trademark claim on the name "Yosemite National Park" itself — any time it appears on park merchandise.
In fact, T-shirts bearing the name "Yosemite National Park" have already been removed from some of the park's gift shops.
This is a huge deal! Half the reason to go to a national park is to get a hoodie with the name of the park on it. That way you can tell your awesome hiking story every time someone asks about it.
Plus ... gorgeous postcards like this one?
Those would be removed from stores as well. If Delaware North's trademark claim is upheld, you wouldn't even be able to mail-brag about your sweet hiking trip to your friends back home in Nebraska.
Worse yet, the National Park Service might have to start selling postcards at national park locations featuring their new, way-too-on-the-nose, generic park names — like There Are Waterfalls Here National Park or The Big One in California National Park.
In fact, if companies keep trying to hustle the National Park System out of naming rights, soon we may all be getting postcards from parks with slightly different names:
Like this one in Arizona.
Or this one, from South Dakota.
Or from this famous park in Wyoming.
So what's the big deal? They're just names, right?
Besides being lodged into the memories of millions of families who've passed through the park in the past 90 years, the names of Yosemite's historic sites have significant cultural value.
"Ahwahnee," which means "big mouth," is the Native American name for Yosemite's central valley. "Wawona" is thought to be an onomatopoeia for the sound of the great horned owl — believed to be a guardian spirit of the area.
Changing the names of these places erases their history; those names have been around way longer than the National Park System.
Most of all, though, this is outrageous because the national parks shouldn't belong to companies. They belong to the people.
The very act that created the National Park Service stipulates that the care and conservation of the parks and wildlife therein is for the enjoyment of people and future generations.
We visit national parks with our families. We create memories there and share pictures on Instagram to get the most Likes. We pay for the upkeep and survival of the parks with our tax dollars. We make laws to protect them and protest when they're in danger. They're ours.
They should belong to all of us.
Filmmaker Ken Burns once called the National Park System "America's best idea," which is saying a lot ... after all, this is the country that invented the space shuttle, the cheeseburger, and christened the sacred marriage of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins in stores across the country.
But Great Ideas™ are what America does.
It's definitely not a Great Idea™ to have the names of our historic and beautiful national parks wrapped up in a petty intellectual property battle.
That's not what our national parks are here for.
They're for loving, cherishing, and gazing up at views like this:
The names of the places we visit are a key factor in the lifelong memories we create there. No company should be able to take that away.