CONCORD, N.H. - Not every state park in New Hampshire includes a mountain, but all staffers might be wearing pictures of little peaks on their uniforms next summer thanks to a corporate sponsorship the state is exploring with Eastern Mountain Sports.
Faced with widening budget gaps, numerous states are reaching out to private companies to sponsor state park facilities, programs or park systems as a whole. The details are still being worked out in New Hampshire, but the intent is to have Eastern Mountain Sports promote state parks in its outdoor clothing and apparel stores in exchange for having state parks promote the company's products. That could mean park uniforms featuring the Mountain Sports logo, the company's name arranged in the shape of a mountain range.
Maine, Virginia and Georgia are among other states that either have or are looking into some kind of sponsorship with corporations to support state parks.
"There's a very fine line you try to walk in doing this," said Gary Waugh, a state official in Virginia. "People come to state parks for a very natural outdoor experience and you don't want to commercialize it. On the other hand, budgets are tight."
Unlike in other states, New Hampshire's park system hasn't had its state funding cut, because it doesn't get any - it relies solely on user fees. But even before the economy worsened, revenues typically fell well short of operating expenses, and the system faces a $1.8 million deficit.
In a 10-year strategic plan published late last year, park officials urged lawmakers to consider providing annual funding but said the state also should invite communities or volunteer groups to help maintain the parks. Ted Austin, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, said a corporate partnership is in keeping with the mandate he's under to explore new models for collaborating with both the public and private sector.
He approached Eastern Mountain Sports in February about a partnership and began announcing it earlier this summer, though nothing has been put in writing, and its unclear whether further approval is required by state officials.
"My rationale was simply: Things you sell in your stores can wonderfully be put to good use in our parks, and activities in our parks can be thoroughly enjoyed with things you sell. So in its simplest sense, it struck me as this should be a no-brainer," Austin said in a recent interview.
In addition to uniforms, Austin envisions Eastern Mountain Sports providing kayaking lessons or other programs in state parks. In stores, a "park of the future" contest might invite young people to suggest new programs and features. That could attract more active outdoor enthusiasts who now bypass the parks, he said.
Austin said the sponsorship plan is particularly attractive given the company's reach: Eastern Mountain Sports has more than 60 stores in New England and the mid-Atlantic region. But a company executive had a different take.
Ted Manning, vice president of merchandising and marketing for Eastern Mountain Sports, said the company would likely promote New Hampshire parks in its stores in neighboring Massachusetts, but probably not much beyond that. Though the Peterborough-based company is excited to work with its home state, it has been talking with other states as well, he said.
Manning is upfront about the fact that his company hopes to make money through such partnerships, but he said larger goals include raising awareness of state parks as important natural resources and creating nontraditional relationships with customers and communities.
"It's not enough for EMS to simply be a retailer that buys stuff and sells stuff. We're really committed to broadening the conversation we have with the consumer," about conservation and other issues, he said.
Lauren Curry, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said such partnerships reflect several converging trends, including state budget woes, the growing environmental movement and the private sector's desire to connect with customers in a new way.
Her state has hired a marketing company to explore corporate sponsorships that could benefit not only state parks but coastal resources and wildlife areas. Those deals may include advertisements on facilities or sponsorship of various programs, she said.
"It's not one specific company or one specific project. We're looking very big-picture across our assets," she said. Though the idea sparked some public concern initially, most people realize that any sponsorship plans will be handled in a tasteful manner, she said.
"We have been very careful to say we're not renaming a park after a company. No one cares more than the Department of Natural Resources about being good stewards of our states," she said. "We're the last ones who want to see our beautiful natural resources cheapened in any way."
Virginia is close to announcing a promotional partnership with the outdoor clothing company The North Face, said Waugh, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. That follows the state's decision to allow an energy company to install touch-screen welcome kiosks with trail information and printable maps.
Visitors have not minded the limited advertising of the company's name on the kiosks, he said.
In Maine, the Bureau of Parks and Lands sometimes works with private companies on specific programs and events.
The bureau launched its Maine State Parks Passport program in the spring and gave out "passports" to park-goers in an effort to get more people to state parks. Companies such as L.L. Bean, Hannaford, Oakhurst, Delorme, Kittery Trading Post and Wicked Joe's Coffee are among the sponsors of the program, and their names appear inside the passports in return for their financial support.
"They're all Maine companies, and it's been mutually beneficial for us," said Will Harris, the bureau's director.
Philip McKnelly, director of the National Association of State Park Directors, said preliminary results from a survey his group is conducting indicate a growing number of states are considering corporate sponsorships for state parks, though he wasn't aware of any that included branded uniforms like New Hampshire is considering.
Richard Ober, chairman of a committee that advises New Hampshire's park system, said he doesn't expect major opposition to the Eastern Mountain Sports plan.
"There is a lot of sensitivity to not commercializing the parks, to not turn them into a billboard for products and services. That's why I think the specifics of working with a New Hampshire-based outdoor recreation company seems to be about as close a mission fit as you could have," he said. "If it was to partner with Apple to promote iPods, it might have raised some eyebrows."