A Patriotic Pick-pocket
By TNTripp

The universal metaphor for government intrusion is Uncle Sam, top hat and tails, with his hand in John Q. Public's pocket. But it's only a metaphor, right?

The National Park Service (NPS), the arm of government dealing with perhaps our most revered public places, has turned the metaphor into reality. They've found a way to get money from people without passing a tax, installing a fee, or implementing a regulation. They simply add to your hotel bill when you pay by credit card and stay at any number of national park lodges, a one dollar "donation." That's what it says, right on the bill: "NPS Donation". There's no attempt to hide your presumed generosity, or the fact that the Park Service and its concessionaires, such as Xanterra Corp., have had the audacity to use your credit card for some other purpose than the one for which you gave it to them. Aside from the potential ethical aspect of charging something to your credit card without authorization, the chutzpah of this enterprise doesn't so much amaze as frighten one.

You only get charged this donation if you stay in a NPS lodge. If you are a daytime visitor, or stay in a campground, where a fee is also charged, or in a parking lot in your RV, no donation. How come? Because in those instances the Park Service, or its proxies in the form of park concessionaires, don't have a hold of your credit card. They would have to openly ask you if you wanted to contribute and then wait, and maybe even have to explain what the money was for, while you pulled out your wallet if the idea stuck you as a good one.

These donations aren't exactly supposed to be a surprise when you see what has been charged to your credit card. The NPS, according to its regulations, requires "strict adherence" to its notification procedures. Verbal disclosure of the donation is required at check-in, check-out, and via written materials in your room. There is a letter which appears at page 27 of the Guest Handbook in Xanterra-operated lodges such as Grand Canyon, but this isn't reading material a park visitor likely rushes toward. The verbal notifications appear more absent than not. To be certain that the donation, after it has already been added to your bill, is voluntary, Xanterra supposedly trains their desk clerks to advise you of it and if you decline the charge, they will take it off the bill.

There are, of course, several problems with this whole procedure. Once the charge is in place, if a guest is not aware of it, that person isn't likely to go back for the dollar if they discover it later. It is likely they won't even know for sure it isn't a legitimate charge for a service rendered, that it is just a gift. Another glitch is that because of the value of the dollar vis--vis foreign currencies, the U.S., and our parks in particular, is flooded with international tourists. Few speak our language well enough to understand they are being asked if they want to contribute an amount above what they've agreed to pay when their reservation was made. The voluntary nature of these donations vanishes in this circumstance. And adherence by the concessionaire to the strict requirement of notification is wholly ineffective if it is not presented in a language the guest speaks.

Roland, from Hanover, Germany, however, speaks English quite well. A dollar had been charged against each room for each night his family had stayed at Bryce Canyon lodge. When asked if he declined to make the donation he said no, he had OK'd the charge. Willingly? It turns out no, and this is the crux of the matter. Roland said, in very polite phrasing, that after all he is a guest in our country, and for him to say no to the six dollar donation would make him look like a cheapskate, but to say yes made him feel like a chump. Roland understands the word donation. And chump.

How did such a circumstance come about? Easily enough-it looks like a good idea, on paper. The NPS, in conjunction with the National Park Foundation, a quasi-governmental charitable group which works directly with the NPS and is headed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, saw this as an easy way to raise additional funds to make our national parks better. For some reason they didn't see that anyone would be offended that a charge would be placed on their bill for a donation which had not be requested and they had not authorized. Nor did they consider anything but perfect administrative adherence on behalf of lodge guests, to the Park Service's notification requirements. These are both singularly long stretches under most circumstances, but especially when bureaucrats are involved. Overall the result which has occurred is foreordained when commercial transactions are intermingled with charitable impulses and overlaid with the imprimatur of the government.

These donations are clearly not voluntary in the traditional sense of the word-where one is asked if one wants to participate, and given the opportunity before the money is taken, to decline. Both the "worthy cause" and the "it's only a dollar" arguments work well for those who take the money without asking. The larger picture which includes the social pressure not to decline to give a dollar to a worthy cause (insert chump or cheapskate here, whichever you don't mind being thought of), the lax administration (even if Xanterra's computers never forget to add the charge, its personnel are considerably more forgetful), and the gall and potential downside proliferation of such an enterprise, mark it for particular opprobrium. For the government to permit those who have our credit cards for a specific purpose to use their access to those cards for their own purposes is a significant imposition.

Of course, not all guests succumb to the pressure to just say yes; about 15% decline the donation outright according to Xanterra Bryce Canyon desk clerk Mandy Gaines. Many, according to Ms. Gaines, whether they say yes or no, also make a point of grabbing a pre-addressed comment card to make their views known directly to corporate-level managers. Acting Xanterra manager at Grand Canyon Marty LaMontagne echoed Ms. Gaine's comments, indicating that a certain percentage of customers were going away with a bum feeling. This clever and simple idea to collect funds for a worthy cause is apparently alienating the very people who would normally be favorably disposed toward supporting our national parks-its appreciative patrons. The cavalier presumption that those people would not 'mind', or might even welcome, the donation in the form of an unauthorized charge is arrogant at worst and insensitive at best. It replaces with resentment the exuberance these natural wonders typically inspire.

In all fairness, this program isn't Xanterra's idea, they were asked to implement it by the NPS, however, they could have said no. Maybe they feel the same pressure to say yes that those who are standing at the check-out window feel, but for a slightly different reason-after all, it is the NPS that awards lucrative contracts to concessionaires, so saying no to them might be tough. Yet there are lodge operators who have done so.

This whole program smacks of effrontery that is both calculated and heedless in its disregard for common ethical if not legal standards. A brief survey of major national charitable organizations could find no other instance in the U.S. where a donation is somehow charged against an individual's account, and then requires that person to actively object to the charge to have it removed. Of course, what is equally distressing is the potential for growth in this field, what economists and ethicists call the slippery slope. One foot on it and you're doomed to slide all the way to the gutter.

The next donation you might see could be $2, added to your grocery bill if you pay by credit card, to benefit some group like Habitat for Humanity, teaming up with the Department of Agriculture, which nicely asks the grocery stores to cooperate. Or a $3 donation when you buy gas by credit card (after all, filling up a gas tank now costs forty or fifty dollars, three dollars more doesn't sound like much), tacked on courtesy of oil companies and the Department of Energy, for the benefit of mass transportation, which is always woefully under-funded. You could decline these charges as well-after the fact. The potential for abuse, the lost time, and the personal discomfort as all of this is administered politically and bureaucratically, is virtually open-ended. The ability to say no is substantially reduced because they are all worthy causes, the amounts are small-for now, and social pressure in such circumstances is large.

What is probably as troubling is that these charges are levied only against credit card customers, because that's how the government gets into your pocket before you know it. The discrimination against those who use plastic at inconvenient times seems untoward and unfair.

There are better ways to do this. For example, in addition to the pre-collected lodging donations at Bryce Canyon National Park, there is a clear plastic cash contribution box in the visitor's center. According to Karen Stoll, acting Superintendent of the park, this truly voluntary method takes in thousands of dollars each year. There is one as well at Glen Canyon Dam. Perhaps the most telling moment when discussing these donations with front desk personnel came at Grand Canyon when the desk clerk, a woman who is a veteran of several summers of these pre-collected contributions, said "They'd raise ten times what we take in via the pre-charges, and offend one-tenth as many people if they'd just put a barrel in front of the door and made the whole thing voluntary and open. People love this experience and they'd contribute plenty to preserve it." If only the government would ask, rather than take. Instead it gets full of itself and its good intentions. The park concessionaires act like obliging organ-grinder monkeys, cheering the administrators on, while implementing the program sloppily at best. Or is their failure to adhere to the park service's regulations not unintentional? In the end the bureaucrats and politicians at the park service are implementing the same policy the military does: don't ask, don't tell.

This article first appeared in Conservative Battleline.

10/1/06

 
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