Uncertain Future for Yosemite’s Iconic Names

Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel now called Majestic Yosemite Hotel.  Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel now called Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Audrey Peterman vividly remembers her very first visit to Yosemite National Park. It was September of 1995 and her and her husband were celebrating their third wedding anniversary. The couple was returning from a cross country road trip, and after driving around to a few campgrounds, they finally settled down at a quiet site to spend the evening enjoying wine and cheese. That night they slept in the bed of their truck beneath the stars.

“In the morning, the mist coming up off the land was so incredibly beautiful and spiritual,” Peterman says. “The sun’s rays warmed the earth and the mist gave way to the warmth, it was amazing.”

After their initial visit, the Petermans returned to Yosemite multiple times. For six years Audrey Peterman served on an advisory board to Delaware North Companies (DNC), the concessionaire that had serviced Yosemite National Park for more than two decades before their contract ended, and she always returned to Yosemite for the board meetings.

Like most fans of this American jewel, Peterman does not support the 2016 name changes of a handful of historic sites in the park.

Yosemite National Park has been a muse to artists like Ansel Adams, authors like John Muir and visitors from all walks of life who flock to Yosemite to garner inspiration from its landscape and iconic structures.

“When I think of The Ahwahnee, I refuse to think of it as whatever the name is now. It’s so disrespectful,” Peterman says.

But when Delaware North, the company that operated services in Yosemite from 1993, lost its contract as park concessionaire, it demanded payment for the intellectual property it claimed ownership to, including names to lodges like The Ahwahnee and Wawona and even the phrase “Yosemite National Park”.

To avoid potential legal issues when the new concessionaire, Aramark, transitioned into the park on March 1, 2016, National Park Service (NPS) changed the names while the case is settled.

Original Name Name Change
Curry Village Half Dome Village
Ahwahnee Hotel Majestic Yosemite Hotel
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls Yosemite Valley Lodge
Badger Pass Ski Area Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area
Wawona Hotel Big Trees Lodge

Background on the Yosemite Trademarks Case

DNC ran the concessions in Yosemite National Park for more than 20 years before its contract expired. The impending expiration opened up a bidding system that allowed other concessionaires to put in a bid for the new park contract. In 2015, Aramark was selected to replace DNC as Yosemite’s new park concessionaire. It has serviced events such as the Olympics and Super Bowl.

Independent concessionaires within the national parks are not uncommon.

“In the case of running a grocery store, running a hotel, running facilities that are inside the park that are outside the expertise of the park service, we bring in private concessionaires to provide that service,” says Jamie Richards, park ranger at Yosemite National Park.

The transition from concessionaire Delaware North to Aramark took effect March 1, 2016. “It was during the switchover that the name controversy arose,” says Scott Gediman, the public affairs officer at Yosemite National Park.

Between 1993 and 2015, Delaware North had trademarked the names of historic buildings, slogans and even, “Yosemite National Park” (tmsearch.uspto.gov).

“The bottom line was that we didn’t know they had done these trademarks,” Gediman says. “When they filed for a trademark, people file for them everyday, we the National Park Service were not monitoring the trademark office, so we had no idea.”

Delaware North declined to interview for this article, but it created a website in response to the dispute. It explains that public records exist of each trademark application and registration, and it listed these on its website and in marketing materials, which it says, “were in full public view”. (www.parktrademarks.com/the-truth/).

Trademarks, like concessionaires, are nothing new to the national parks. According to a Denver Post article, in 2015, Grand Canyon concessionaire Xanterra applied for 20 trademarks for names like Phantom Ranch, El Tovar and Hopi House, before its contract with the National Park Service at Grand Canyon National Park expired. Those names are also iconic to the park history as venues that people have visited for decades.

Xanterra ended up dropping its efforts to trademark these names at the Grand Canyon.

“This is not something we would like to discuss,” says Bruce Brossman, the regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra South Rim.

At Yosemite National Park, Delaware North is asking the new concessionaire Aramark to pay for the trademarked names, valued at $51 million, as per Delaware North’s contract with the National Park Service.

How Delaware North came up with this number as the value for the intellectual property is stated in a letter to the National Park Service postmarked on Jan. 2, 2016.

“DNCY [DNC at Yosemite] has obtained two separate appraisals from reputable experts. The valuation results are very similar,” wrote Delaware North Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Rick Abramson.

But the National Park Service disagrees with this estimation.

“They wanted millions of dollars for these trademarks–upwards of $50 million,” Gediman says. “If [Aramark] didn’t pay them, Delaware North was threatening to file an injunction to have the businesses stopped. We at the National Park Service wanted to ensure seamless transition so we decided, in the interest of park operation and the continuity of service to the park visitors, to temporarily change the names”

But in the Jan. 2 letter, Abramson proposes “a limited, royalty-free license to use DNCY’s trademarks for The Ahwahnee, Wawona, Curry Village, Badger Pass, Yosemite Lodge, the Mountain Shop at Yosemite, and the Half-Dome/Yosemite National Park merchandise designs.”

This would have apparently allowed the National Park Service and Aramark use of this intellectual property during the pending litigation.

The Wawona Hotel now called Big Trees Lodge. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

The Wawona Hotel now called Big Trees Lodge. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Where is the Case Now?

Despite Delaware North’s offer to let the park service and Aramark use the famous names in the interim of the pending court case, the park service proceeded with the implementation of the new names when Aramark took over on March 1, 2016.

“We did not take them up on their offer of using them loyalty free because if we did, then that would be an acknowledgment on our part that they own [the names],” Gediman says.

Some loyal Yosemite visitors still question whether the name changes were the best option.

“They could have fought the battle, but it seemed like they gave up too quickly, or changed the names to spite Delaware,” says Melissa Takahashi, who has visited the park once a year for the past 27 years.

Delaware North has filed a “Breach of Contract” lawsuit against the United States of America. It contends that in not requiring Aramark to buy the trademarks, the government has breached the terms of its concession contract set in place on Sept. 29, 1993. The suit is ongoing and slated to be heard in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 2017.

In the meantime, there are two tracks that the National Park Service is pursuing in order to legally restore the original names. One would be to win the suit filed against them.

The National Park Service feels that Delaware North does not legally own the names separately from the physical assets, which were relinquished when their contract expired.

“This notion that they own the names separately [from the buildings] and retain control over the names when they’ve relinquished the buildings is one of the big issues right now in the court case,” Gediman says. “Aramark isn’t required to buy out these trademarks because Aramark is not involved in the lawsuit right now, although there’s a question they might be.”

The National Park Service has also made an appeal to the United States Patent and Trademark Office asking that the trademarks registered by Delaware North be cancelled. As of now, Delaware North legally owns the trademarks, but the National Park Service is making the claim that the United States Patent and Trademark Office never should have approved the registrations in the first place.

“Our appeal is that these names belong with these buildings, which are part of the history of the park,” Gediman says. “So they shouldn’t be eligible to be trademarked.”

The lawsuit will take place before the appeal to the patent and trademark office is addressed.

Curry Village now called Half Dome Village. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Curry Village now called Half Dome Village. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Overlooked Issues

In the wake of the legal wrangling over the Yosemite trademarks, another factor comes into play.

“There was a side to this story that I think was being really overlooked and that is the tragedy that this company is trying to profit and capitalize on Native American heritage and language,” says Damian Riley, former executive director of The Mariposa County Chamber of Commerce.

Riley, who grew up in a Native American family that has worked for the park service for generations, speaks to the cultural significance of the names, like Yosemite, Ahwahnee and Wawona.

The Miwok tribes that surrounded what is now Yosemite Valley gave the name Yosemite to their fearsome enemies who inhabited the valley. Translated, Yosemite means “those who kill”. The valley the Yosemite tribe lived in was referred to as Owwoni or “large mouth,” later spelled Ahwahnee. Wawona means “big trees.”

He compares the trade marking of these names to trade marking the name of a national monument dedicated to fallen soldiers—and then making a profit of it.

“And that, I think is the biggest travesty of all, especially when we’ve got things going on like Standing Rock in North Dakota, and so many other cases of Native Americans being exploited for profit,” Riley says. “This kind of falls right into the same category.”

Some are pointing to an oversight from the National Park Service in letting this happen.

“It was incredibly irresponsible for the NPS to allow Delaware to secure the names on their behalf without pre-determined compensation,” says Takahashi, who works in brand management for large corporations. “Now the rest of the world suffers for it.”

Takahashi agrees that the best course of action would be to nullify the trademarks registered for the names. “It’s not just a name, there is emotional attachment to these places by the names we know them by.”

Peterman also questions the leadership in the park.

“How did they not know?” she asks. “How did they not respond before it got to this? The level of incompetence does not make me feel confident in their ability.”

“There had to be alternatives. The focus of a leader is to look down the road and see problems that are coming and take care of them. It’s basic management.”

Delaware North might say it did offer an alternative—use of the original names until the case was settled. The Park Service did not comment as to why it did not accept Delaware North’s offer.

Chair lifts at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass.) Photo by Kenny Karst courtesy of Yosemite/Mariposa County

Chair lifts at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass.) Photo by Kenny Karst courtesy of Yosemite/Mariposa County

Looking Forward

If the National Park Service wins the lawsuit, it could restore the original names to their respective site without Aramark paying $51 million for the trademark rights.

Or if the United States Patent and Trademark Office makes the decision to cancel the trademark registrations, it would mean that these names would belong to the historical structures, and would not be eligible for trademark.

A win for Delaware North would require that Aramark pay the concessionaire the projected value of the intellectual property. Then Aramark would be the owner of the trademarks, either until the registration expired or until its successor took over the concessions contract in Yosemite.

Delaware North claims it, too, wants to see the names restored.

“These sites and their history are our national heritage,” the company writes in a letter on its website. “These are more than trademarks and brand names, and that is why the park service required us to sell them back to the next company chosen to provide services.”

But the park service believes that the names never should have belonged to the concessionaire in the first place.

“We feel very strongly that these historic buildings that are incredibly important, are part of the cultural fabric of the National Park Service, and that these names belong with these facilities,” Gediman says. “We did temporarily change the names, but we feel that these names should be associated with the structures and that they’ll go back, and we’re certainly going to continue to vigorously defend them, as much as we can, to see that these names are brought back to the way they’ve historically been.”

The fate of these names is yet to be decided, but it seems to be the general consensus among the park service, Delaware North and park visitors that restoring the original names to their respective structures is the primary goal.

“The Ahwahnee that Stephen Mather [first director of the National Park Service] created, The Ahwahnee that President Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth stayed at, The Ahwahnee named after the Ahwahneechee people, come on,” Peterman says. “I don’t even know its name now, but I will not call it that name. Or those other places that are misnamed.”

(To read more of the public’s commentary on these changes, see our Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/MyYosemite/posts/1243530829041296)


Portrait of Jade Lang.Jade Lang is a writer with National Park Trips Media and is in her senior year at CU-Boulder. She studies journalism, philosophy and Spanish, and loves music, animals, Corepower Yoga, and traveling.