Yosemite National Park May Lose Trademark Claims to Ahwahnee Hotel, Other Popular Venues

As its contract comes up for bid this month, the concession company that runs Yosemite National Park has quietly informed the National Park Service it owns the names of some of the park's most famous spots, including the historic Ahwahnee Hotel and popular Curry Village.

As a result the company says, the Northern California park, which is owned by the federal government and paid for with American tax dollars, would no longer have the right use to those names.

Unless of course, Yosemite pays Delaware North $51 million in "intellectual property rights," the company has informed the park service as it renegotiates its contract to operate the park's hotels and lodges.

Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin,  who keeps close tabs on the national park system, said the move to trademark such high-profile park institutions is likely unprecedented.

"I don't know that this has ever happened before," Trainer told NBC Bay Area. "It will be a real travesty if this company is allowed to hijack the name of one of America's most beloved places and hold it for ransom. It won't change the majesty of the Ahwahnee Hotel, but certainly something will be lost."

The trademark issue was first reported Tuesday night by the alternative weekly, the East Bay Express, and it appears to have caught the National Park Service off guard.

"The National Park Service was surprised to receive this notification," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said by phone on Wednesday. He added that the park service founders, more than 150 years ago, never "separated who owned the name, and who owned the facilities," and never thought to trademark the names of the historic hotels and lodges. "These names pre-date the contract with Delaware North. These names belong to the American people."

In addition to the famous Ahwahnee Hotel, the company also operates Badger Pass, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, and Yosemite Lodge. In all, Delaware North, headquartered in Buffalo, New York, operates about 1,500 guest rooms, 25 food and drink stands, and 19 retail locations within Yosemite.

In a lengthy email to NBC Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon,  Delaware North at Yosemite Director of Marketing Jim Stellmack explained what he called a "complex" issue. He said that the National Park Service required his company to buy the stock from the previous concessionaire, the Yosemite Park and Curry Co.,  which it turn made Delaware North the owners of  those assets, which are both "tangible and intangible." Stellmack compared the issue to when the National  Park Service gave intellectual property rights over to "The Ansel Adams Gallery" in Yosemite, "Verkamp's," a shop previously operated in the Grand Canyon and the logo for the Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, which the previous concessionaire would not sell to the successor.

In a follow-up phone interview, Stellmark said the naming rights have been trademarked "all along," since before Delaware North took over the hotel and restaurant operations, and it's likely coming to light now as his company's contract is up for renewal.

Michael Dergosits, a trademark attorney in San Francisco, said according the U.S. Patent Office, Delaware North, by way of the previous company that operated the hotels and restaurants, did indeed file servicemarks with those names in 1988.

But he quickly added that the trademark issue "seems to be taking advantage of the park service." 

To be clear, Delaware North does not own the Ahwahnee Hotel and the other commercial venues it has operated since 1993. Those are part of the park system and are public property.

But the company believes it has a right to own the names of the famous venues.

With most public park systems, taxpayers owns the actual park, but private companies operate the hotel, lodges and restaurants. Delaware North was recently recognized for its "effective sustainability efforts," its company website states, at other parks it operates, including Yellowstone National Park and the Kalalock Lodge in Olympic National Park.

Beginning on July 12, Delaware North sent a series of letters to the park service, stating that it owned the tradename and servicemark registrations for all of the names of businesses, restaurants and lodges it operates within Yosemite National Park. The company sent those letters as the park service began soliciting bids for a new concessionaire's agreement at Yosemite National Park.

This week, the park service extended the Jan. 8 deadline for prospective concessionaires to submit applications for the Yosemite contract to January 21. Yosemite leaders could choose the next concessionaire in March or April, Gediman said. If the park service continues to contract with Delaware North, then the current names stay as is and no one would know that the company owned them. Gediman told NBC Bay Area that in its years of service, Delaware North has done a fine job.

Of course, the park service could choose to go with another company to run its hotels and lodges.

But, according to documents filed with the federal government, Delaware North the park service must pay it $51 million in "intellectual property rights" fees for the right to continue to use the names if another concessionaire is chosen. Stellmack said that amount includes not just the names but "lots of stuff," including mailing lists and other crucial assets.

It's not as if the hotels and lodges would disappear. But there is a chance they could be forced to operate under a completely different name. That might be confusing and sad for those who know the place in American history the venues hold. The Ahwahnee Hotel, for example, was built in 1927 as a place where affluent travelers could stay to see stunning views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point. The Wawona Hotel was built in 1876. Both hotels are National Historic Landmarks.

On Monday, the park service issued a memo to prospective concessionaires asserting that it does, in fact, own the rights to Yosemite's most famous names. But that only applies if another company earns the Yosemite bid and would not necessarily apply to Delaware North.

Trainer told NBC Bay Area National Park Service lawyers "may need to consider filing trademark and servicemark claims for all national parks if Delaware North prevails at Yosemite."

And Dergosits, the trademark attorney, said that the park service could try to fight the claim by arguing that Delaware North only has a right to the names because they are operating on "behalf of the government."

Gediman said, at this point, no legal action has been taken against Delaware North. But, he added, "clearly we're looking into that."

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