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Yosemite Park names changing over Delaware North dispute

Some of the best-known places in Yosemite National Park are getting new names because of a legal dispute with Buffalo-based concessionaire Delaware North Cos.

The Ahwahnee Hotel will become the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Curry Village, a collection of tent-cabins at the center of the park, will become Half Dome Village. Names like Ahwahnee and Curry Village date to the 126-year-old park’s early days.

The changes to the nation’s third-most-visited national park have caused a big stir, especially out West, where the new names were front page news from San Francisco to Fresno. If you think that’s a lot of hoopla over a few names, imagine renaming Fenway Park, or changing the Maid of the Mist name.

The National Park Service said it was forced to change the names beginning March 1 because of a legal dispute with Delaware North over the legal rights to the historic names attached to many of Yosemite’s best-known sites.

“It is unfortunate that we must take this action,” Don Neubacher, Yosemite’s superintendent, said in a statement. “Yosemite National Park belongs to the American people.”

Delaware North said it was “shocked and disappointed” that the park service would consider “using the beloved names” as “a bargaining chip in a legal dispute.”

The company offered to license use of the trademarks for free so that the names could continue to be used while the legal dispute plays out in court, an offer it said would eliminate the need to change any names within the park.

Delaware North lost the concessions contract at Yosemite, valued at $2 billion over 15 years, last year to its rival, Aramark. Delaware North’s contract expires at the end of February, so the name change is timed to coincide with Aramark taking over operations at Yosemite.

“It’s a shame the names are changing,” said Kim Lawson, a spokeswoman for the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau.

“It wasn’t a complete surprise. But I think we all hoped it wouldn’t come down to that,” she said.

“I think everyone hopes that it will go back.”

The decision to change the Yosemite names is a negotiating tactic by the park service to bring public pressure on Delaware North to reach a settlement, said Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo Law School professor.

“It’s throwing down the gauntlet,” Bartholomew said. “Both sides stand to lose. There’s a loss to the new concessionaire and the National Park Service if they can’t call it the Ahwahnee.”

But Delaware North also could be hurt financially because its Yosemite trademarks could lose value if the dispute drags on for years and the old names fall out of use, while the new names take hold, Bartholomew said.

The name changes, if they go through, will have far-reaching effects, said Dan Jensen, who ran Delaware North’s operations in Yosemite for the past nine years before retiring in October. The new names would require changes to maps, signs, brochures and marketing material.

“The unintended consequences of this go far beyond the name change,” he said. “It’s not just a simple little thing where somebody puts a new sign on their business.”

Under the name changes announced by the parks service:

• Yosemite Lodge at the Falls will become Yosemite Valley Lodge.

• The Ahwahnee will be renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

• Curry Village will be called Half Dome Village.

• The Wawona Hotel will become Big Trees Lodge.

• Badger Pass Ski Area will become Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.

Delaware North isn’t challenging the park service’s decision to award the contract to Aramark. Instead, Delaware North claims that it owns the rights to the names of several well-known sites within the park, which it said it was required to purchase for the equivalent of $115 million in today’s dollars when it took over operations at Yosemite in 1993 from a company that had managed those operations for more than 100 years.

That includes trademarked slogans such as “Go Climb a Rock” and intellectual property such as the names of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Badger Pass.

Delaware North also contends that it owns the trademarks to the phrase “Yosemite National Park.”

“People know them by those names,” said Jensen, the retired Delaware North executive who still works as a consultant to the company. “It’s very painful to think of it being called something else.”

The company argues that Aramark should purchase its intellectual property at Yosemite, just as it did when it took over park operations more than 22 years ago.

But the two sides are far apart in their views on how much the intellectual property is worth. In court papers filed earlier this month, Delaware North said its intellectual property – including names of prominent venues at the popular California park and a customer database – is worth $51 million. The parks service contends that it’s worth $3.5 million.

“Our only interest is selling them on to the new concessionaire for fair value,” the company said in a statement. “All we want in this is fair and just treatment from the National Park Service and for it to follow the letter of our contract.”

Justice Department attorney John Robertson wrote in court papers earlier this month that the company’s estimate of the value of the trademarks was “wildly inflated.” He also said Delaware North had “breached its duty of good faith and fair dealing.”

Delaware North countered by saying it had not “grossly overvalued” the trademarks. It said its valuations were based on two appraisals by experts. The company also said it has offered to use binding arbitration to set the value of the intellectual property.

The park, which is bigger than Rhode Island, attracts 4 million visitors each year and employs 1,800 people.

Yosemite is not the only national park with ongoing disputes over the names of iconic places. There also have been disputes over high-profile names at places like Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Robertson, in the government’s court papers earlier this month, accused Delaware North of “following a business model whereby it collects trademarks to the names of iconic property owned by the United States,” including the “Space Shuttle Atlantis” at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the company has long held the concessions contract.

“While it is unfortunate that we must take this action, changing the names of these facilities will help us provide seamless service,” Neubacher said. “This action does not affect the historic status of the facilities.”

Lawson agreed. “Yosemite is still there,” she said. “Everything about Yosemite is going to stay the same.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com