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Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Natural wonders aren’t yet in jeopardy as Delaware North claims trademark rights over Yosemite landmarks, but might there be a chance that this beauty eventually will become Buck and a Half Dome?

Encouraged by the best picture award for “Spotlight,” a movie about real-world investigative reporting, I thought this might be a good week to share what I find to be a highly interesting piece of investigative reporting trivia. It is also good timing because of this week’s forced renaming of some of our favorite Yosemite landmarks. Yes, there is a connection.

On a hot day in June 1976, Don Bolles started his Datsun in the parking lot of a Phoenix hotel only to have it explode. Bolles, 47, was an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic and he had done as well as one man could at finding the links between organized crime, Arizona race tracks and corrupt public officials.

His last words, according to those who rushed to his aid, were “Telephone my wife. They finally got me. The Mafia. Emprise. Find John Adamson.”

Adamson, a petty thug, was tried and convicted for his part in arranging Bolles’ death but the murder was never directly tied to Emprise, which had been a focus of Bolles’ reporting largely because of its organized crime connections and its major role in the world of sport, both in Arizona and well beyond.

Forgive yourself if little of this rings a bell. It wasn’t long after Bolles’ death that Emprise changed its name to Delaware North. That should be more familiar because it’s the company that has claimed ownership of the names of various Yosemite landmarks, resulting in the loss of longstanding monikers such as the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Wawona Hotel as of today.

After losing the concession to run the money-making operations at Yosemite, such as the hotels and ice cream sales, Delaware North demanded the National Park Service fork over $51 million for the intellectual property attached to the place names, on the theory that it had marketed and enhanced the names during its 23-year management of the facilities. Unfortunately, there is some precedent because an earlier concessionaire long ago had been allowed to sell what should have been publicly owned trademarks.

The old signs come down Tuesday, though litigation could prevent the Ahwahnee from permanently becoming The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. There also is legislation that seeks to prevent something like this from happening again, before someone changes the name of the Big Sur Lodge to Just Another Lodge or something like that.

But prevention is not the point of this piece. The point is historical, an effort to make sure that when people consider the Yosemite naming controversy they also remember who is involved. This is not the case of some little company from Delaware trying to stand up to the big, bad National Park Service.

What today is known as Delaware North began as a partnership known as Jacobs Brothers and formed to operate theater concessions in Buffalo, N.Y. The operation quickly grew, however, with the three Jacobs brothers taking over concessions at baseball stadiums, first in New York, then in Cleveland and then just about everywhere baseball is played for money.

They moved into racetrack ownership and operations in the 1930s and into airport concessions in the 1940s.

The company became notorious in the 1970s when Sports Illustrated and congressional investigators linked it to a number of well known mobsters. In 1972 the company was convicted on federal racketeering charges for its role in a mob takeover of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was still known as Emprise at that time.

Despite the tarnish, the company continued to grow, still under Jacobs family control, taking over ownership of the Boston Bruins NHL hockey franchise, Boston Garden and additional concession contracts nationwide as well as in England and Ireland.

When it won the concession at Yosemite in 1993, it was the largest national park concession in the nation. It later took over concessions at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and continued to expand its holdings in horse and dog racing.

Despite the high profile dispute over the Yosemite names, Delaware North remains best known as the operator of concessions at major league ballparks nationwide and as the operator of slot machines in five states.

Though company officials seldom comment directly at times of controversy, the company does defend its name by offering statements such as this response to a critical piece in a Boston magazine:

Delaware North Companies is regarded as one of the most admired family owned companies in the world. This is reputation that they earned through integrity in business dealings for nearly 100 years. The company has operations on four continents and 55,000 employees and operates at locations ranging from Kennedy Space Center to national parks. Delaware North is a partner with more than fifty professional sports teams and the Jacobs family is highly regarded for their reputation in the sports and hospitality industry. The Jacobs family is also one of the most philanthropic families in the United States. In fact, last year they were named Philanthropist of the Year and Philanthropic Family of the Year. While I know it won’t sell as many magazines, that might have been a nice story to tell. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
”

 So there you have it.

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Zion

TROPIC, Utah—Somewhere between Orderville and Escalante, I lost a large measure of the California chauvinism that had me believing all these years that Yosemite was as good as it gets when it comes to national parks and the scenery that surrounds them.

Now I am not about to denigrate Yosemite. It is a grand place, a nearly sacred spot, a temple for the worship of nature’s creativity. But having lived most of my life in California, I now realize that I must have fallen into a Californiacentric trap regarding its place in the overall scheme of scenic wonders. I had not, until this past week, experienced southern Utah’s awe-inspiring monuments to rock and erosion. I am referring, of course, to Zion and Bryce national parks and their environs. Yes, Yosemite is wonderful and tremendous and simply fabulous. Zion and Bryce are all that and a little more.

At Zion, it took the seemingly modest Virgin River hundreds of millions of years but it has managed to get even the French tourists to point and grin. At Bryce, the absurdly photogenic terrain was created not by a river but by wind, water and bad weather, elements that conspired to lure even this out-of-shape lump off the shuttle and onto the trails this past week.

The order one selects to visit these miracles is a matter of regional debate, with some arguing that visitors should build up to the mystical formations of Bryce. I probably disagree. Better to reverse the process and let the relatively less commercial environment of Zion help erase some memory of the tawdry approach to Bryce.

Bryce is the one with the spectacular hoodoos, the red spires, columns and rows and random protuberances of rocks dangerously perched on other rocks. But Bryce is also the one with the approach dominated by cowboy-themed stores in a compound with all the charm of a truck stop. If you’re looking for stumps of petrified wood covered with plasticized images of red-white-and-blue eagles, this is the place. But that can be forgotten while you renew yourself on the maze of trails that wind down the side of canyons spectacular enough to suggest the presence of a power higher even than Ruby Styrett, the entrepreneur whose descendants seem to own everything within sight of the park gates.

At Bryce, we braved the Are You Out of Your Mind Loop, a trail of endless switchbacks laid out by someone who thought it would be cute to keep sending you back to the canyon floor each time you thought you were about to make it to the top, where the 8,100-foot elevation takes no pity at all on former smokers. I considered hijacking one of the pack mules that merrily skipped past us on the trails but each was occupied.

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Bryce

Zion’s more limited commercial trappings are much more engaging, if you care about about how things look. Most of the tourist trade is carried out in the small town of Springdale, which consists mostly of restaurants and outfitters. If you’re visiting Zion, you need the things they sell in Springdale — food, maps and hiking socks. You do not need the things they sell just outside Bryce — ATV rides, Pringles and alligator jerky.

Although Bryce itself is the more dramatic of the two, we preferred slightly more subdued Zion, which is kind of like Yosemite Valley on steroids. For one thing, the trails at Zion start on the canyon floor and lead you up, which generally means that when a trail has kicked your butt, your escape route is mercifully downhill. At Bryce, you still have to climb your way out well after realizing you’re overmatched. At Zion, you can wade the Virgin River into the canyon that eventually becomes slender enough to be called The Narrows. You can feel good about yourself on the way out as you pass an incoming team of Navy SEALS on holiday.

Recognizing that this is not a nature blog, I searched for political nuggets to bring home with me but found relatively few in the parks themselves. It seemed as though about half of those on the trails were American honeymooners or college students and the other half were international tourists, largely from France and Germany. I heard “Obama” a few times but couldn’t make out the rest.

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Outside Zion

The political and socioeconomic pickings were easier outside the parks. According to purely local accounts, the original Native American settlers in the region simply chose to move on at some point so the Mormons could move in. The National Park Service account, as repeated on the shuttle buses, is simply that the Indians left for “social and environmental reasons.” For the most part, the original park facilities were designed and built by the railroads, which wanted to create destinations in order to sell tickets.

Zion is in the same county as Hildale, a community operated by one of the Mormon spinoff sects. I’m pretty sure it was a polygamous family next to us at dinner one night. One of the sect leaders was once incarcerated at the Purgatory Corrections Center in nearby Hurricane. The jail got its name because it was built at Purgatory Flats. Hurricane got its name because a stiff wind once knocked someone’s hat off. They don’t call it Hurricane, however. It’s pronounced Hur-Kin.

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Along the Are You Out of Your Mind Trail, also known as the Navajo Loop

Most of the small towns in the area have a certain kind of charm, the rustic and sort of rundown kind. Too many storefronts are empty. While the parks and the Bryce tourist trap had plenty of tour buses over the long weekend, business was mixed outside the parks. The B&Bs were busy, the motels not so much. Maybe that’s because many motels in nearby towns consist of rows of tiny, very basic log cabins that probably sounded much better than they turned out. We were the only visitors when we stopped at the Mt. Carmel compound of legendary artist Maynard Dixon.

A couple counties away is St. George, one of the nation’s fastest growing, whitest and most conservative cities. The big political debate there these days pits regular conservatives against chamber of commerce conservatives. The regular conservatives hate undocumented immigrants. The chamber of commerce conservatives don’t mind undocumented immigrants if they have money to spend. They agree on everything else.

In Rockville and Cannonville, flags were everywhere on Memorial Day and the day after. There may be bumper stickers on the pickups the locals drive but the rainy season was extra long this year and they’re covered with mud. Newspapers are hard to come by in most of these places, even at the general stores. I’d like to think it’s because of remoteness, not lack of interest.

The annual quilt festival is coming right up in Panguitch. At the Cowboy Grill in Tropic, the town closest to Bryce, the special on Tuesday was the Clint Eastwood Burger. The young woman taking orders said she had no idea why.

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Native American cliff painting above Calf Creek in Escalante National Monument

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