National Park Service plays hardball with Delaware North regarding Yosemite place names.
For approximately six years I worked as a server in the grand dining room of the Ahwahnee Hotel, which, barring some Hail Mary intervention, will become The Majestic Yosemite Hotel on March 1, 2016 when the concessionaire Aramark takes over park operations from Delaware North Companies, (DNC).
I have gazed upon the Ahwahnee’s logo literally thousands of times—I’ve told the story of the “Three-Legged Indian” to countless guests—how the tri-spoked circle based on an Indian basket pattern represents earth, rain, and fire. The logo, created by Jeannette Dyer-Spencer and used since opening day in 1927, is instantly recognizable to the generations of visitors who have passed through the doors of the hotel. It’s on every page of a menu I once knew by heart. It adorns each of the Ahwahnee’s china plates and is revealed at the bottom of teacups once the last sip is taken. When Sterling China, who had produced the dishes since 1938, went out of business, DNC bought the original molds and decals to continue to produce the signature dishes.
It has now come to light that during its tenure as Yosemite’s concessionaire, DNC also quietly purchased the intellectual property rights not only to the name “The Ahwahnee,” but to other iconic Yosemite place names as well—Curry Village, The Wawona Hotel and Badger Pass Ski Area, to name a few. The Buffalo, N.Y.-based company filed suit against the National Park Service (NPS) in Sept. 2015, claiming that the names (as well as web domains, logos and customer databases) are worth $51.2 million and must be purchased in order to be used by Aramark. The Park Service responded to the lawsuit, saying DNC’s estimate was “wildly inflated” and offering $3.5 million. Then, on Jan. 14, they called DNC’s bluff—NPS would simply rename the trademarked property. The Ahwahnee would become the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Curry Village would become Half Dome Village, and Wawona Hotel would become Big Trees Lodge.
The squabble over the name changes has many up in arms. Justice Department Attorney John H. Robertson wrote in the government’s response to the lawsuit that DNC “has apparently embarked on a business model whereby it collects trademarks to the names of iconic property owned by the United States.” As an example, Robertson noted that DNC was granted the trademark to “Space Shuttle Atlantis” last year by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (DNC runs concessions at the Kennedy Space Center).
DNC says it is being unfairly lambasted. When DNC took over the contract in 1993, it did so by purchasing the stock of the original concessionaire, Curry Co., which included trademarks and “intangible assets,” according to the L.A. Times.
When the original contract was negotiated, the Times reported, the “tangible” property in the park, such as The Ahwahnee, was understood to belong to the government—it was the “intangibles” that were more nebulous—they were agreed to be transferred to a new concessionaire, when the time came, at “fair value.” At the time the contract was put into place, the government did not specify how to determine “fair value,” nor did it detail what DNC owned, according to the company’s lawsuit.
Though it is easy to demonize DNC for trademarking historic names (even the name “Yosemite” is in question as it pertains to merchandise and logos), the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office allowed it to happen. Though initially rejecting DNC’s applications, which the company started submitting in 2002, the USPTO eventually approved name-and-logo combinations of the places in question, according to the L.A. Times.
However, the Park Service claims it was kept in the dark about the applications until DNC’s contract, estimated to be worth about $2 billion, was awarded to Aramark subsidiary Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, last June. DNC, on the other hand, said that they had expected that Aramark would be required to purchase the “intangible assets” that they themselves had bought from Curry Co. In a prepared statement when the initial suit was filed, DNC said “It is … sad and unfortunate that DNC Yosemite was left with no recourse other than to go to court to seek fair treatment regarding the transfer of the Yosemite National Park concessions contract.”
The Park Service’s announcement on Jan. 14 that it would change the names prompted a public outcry—and DNC filed an amended complaint on Monday, Jan. 25 attesting that the government’s tactics were unfair, and that the NPS is using the court of public opinion to force DNC into a corner.
The revised lawsuit makes note of the fact that DNC offered the Park Service a temporary “royalty-free license” to use the trademarked names while the lawsuit was resolved. It stated, “In light of DNCY’s offer to license the [trade]marks while this litigation goes forward pending an assignment of all rights to the new concessioner for fair value, NPS had no need to change the names in order to avoid potential infringement claims and was not compelled to do so by DNCY.”
As the battle rages on, many question what, in fact, is in a name. For myself, as an employee at a National Historic Landmark, it was history, knowledge, and a chance to forge a deeper connection. As a server in the Ahwahnee’s dining room, I was asked several times a day about the meaning of the hotel’s name. In the case of The Ahwahnee, the history lessons are in the word itself—The Ahwahneechee were the original Miwok inhabitants of Yosemite Valley, and “Ahwahnee” was the word they called their valley—“gaping mouth.” The name “Ahwahnee” means to the Miwok, many of whom still work in the park, what “Yosemite” means to most.
Due to the government’s careless treatment of place names that belong to the public, the chance to pass this knowledge on to future generations of visitors may be lost for good.