Weary of plastic litter, Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon late last year when the nation’s parks chief abruptly blocked the plan after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation.
Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled. His account was confirmed by park, foundation and company officials.
A spokesman for the National Park Service, David Barna, said it was Jon Jarvis, the top federal parks official, who made the “decision to put it on hold until we can get more information.” He added that “reducing and eliminating disposable plastic bottles is one element of our green plan. This is a process, and we are at the beginning of it.”
Mr. Martin, a 35-year veteran of the park service who had risen to the No. 2 post in 2003, was disheartened by the outcome. “That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business,” Mr. Martin said in an interview. “It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it.”
Neil J. Mulholland, president of the foundation, said that a representative of Coca-Cola had reached out to him late in the process to inquire about the reasons for the water bottle ban and how it would work.
“There was not an overt statement made to me that they objected to the ban,” Mr. Mulholland said, adding, “There was never anything inferred by Coke that if this ban happens, we’re losing their support.” The foundation president noted in the interview that Coca-Cola had recently donated $80,000 for a recycling program on the Mall in Washington.
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Susan Stribling, said the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer,” she said. “If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem.” She also characterized the bottle ban as limiting personal choice. “You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume,” she said.
In seeking the ban, the Grand Canyon park, under Mr. Martin’s direction from 2006 until his retirement last December, was following the example of Zion National Park, in Utah, which had instituted a similar program to great acclaim in 2008. The park service gave it an environmental achievement award in 2009 for eliminating 60,000 plastic bottles from the park in its first year.
Discarded plastic bottles account for about 30 percent of the park’s total waste stream, according to the park service. Mr. Martin said the bottles are “the single biggest source of trash” found inside the canyon.
Mr. Martin said he got approval to proceed with implementing the ban after he briefed his superiors in both the Denver regional office and Washington headquarters in the spring of 2010. Research showed that the park sold about $400,000 worth of bottled water in a given year. The planned ban at the Grand Canyon would have covered only smaller bottles and would not have applied to other beverages such as soda or juices.
In preparation, the park and its contracted concessionaires installed more water “filling stations” for reusable bottles at a cost of about $300,000, according to information provided by the park service to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental group based in Washington that has worked to uncover the underlying reasons for the abrupt turn-around on the ban.
Senior park officials considered having Mr. Jarvis announce the ban to a meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in the fall of 2010. “From a media standpoint, we see this as good news, it fits perfectly into Jon’s sustainability goals,” Mr. Barna wrote in an internal park service e-mail. He concluded, “We are aware that others (Nestle, etc.) may not be thrilled at this decision but other than that, are there any downsides?”
In mid-December, Mr. Martin received a telephone call and an e-mail from his immediate boss, John Wessels, the Intermountain regional director for the park service, with news that the ban was being postponed indefinitely.
Mr. Jarvis said that he had not heard of the ban until Nov. 17, and felt that an action by Grand Canyon park would have more impact than Zion’s. He added: “My decision to hold off the ban was not influenced by Coke, but rather the service-wide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park.”
The decision was laid out in an e-mail by Jo A. Pendry, then chief of commercial services for the park service, who explained that during a Dec. 13 meeting, Mr. Jarvis “reiterated his decision to have the Grand Canyon hold off on implementation” until “we have hosted a meeting with the major producers of bottled water.”
She also wrote that Mr. Jarvis expected that Mr. Wessels would “touch base with the N.P.F./Coke, and he asked that I get in touch with you to see where you are with making that contact.”
The N.P.F. refers to the acronym for the nonprofit foundation, which was chartered by Congress to generate individual and corporate private donations to the national parks.
The e-mails were provided to The New York Times by a current park service employee concerned about the handling of the bottle ban. The employee declined to be identified because he does not have permission to speak publicly on the subject.
PEER, the public employees’ group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in August seeking documents that could shed light on the decision, but only two documents — letters between Mr. Martin and representatives of the park concessionaire Xanterra — were released, said Jeff Ruch, the group’s president, who is weighing a lawsuit.
Asked why Mr. Mulholland, the president of the foundation, had been involved in the decision to table the ban, Mr. Barna, the park service spokesman, said, “He’s a partner, and he represents a lot of people who do good things in the parks. He’s a way for people to get introductions within the park service.”
Mr. Barna quickly added that he did not mean that donors could buy access.
For his part, Mr. Mulholland said he had no qualms about entertaining Coca-Cola’s questions and concerns. “I don’t feel conflicted, because the park service does a very good job of policing themselves and adhering to their standards,” he said.