Jeff Jardine

So what’s in a name? In Yosemite, it’s power

Ask anyone staying at or eating in the big stone-and concrete hotel on Yosemite’s valley floor the name of this iconic hotel, he or she invariably will answer, “The Ahwahnee.”

There is a simple reason for this. That is its name, and has been since it opened in 1927, the same year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and a month after Charles Lindbergh solo’d across the Atlantic.

In fact, visitors have known it as nothing else.

But a legal dispute between concessionaire Delaware North and the National Parks Service could be bad for the park, though great for stationery companies and bath towel embroiderers.

Delaware North, the park’s outgoing concessionaire, claims it owns the naming rights to Ahwahnee, Badger Pass and Curry Village among the park’s well-known attractions, as its intellectual property.

The company lost the concessions contract at the park to Aramark, and is suing the government for breach of the contract it’s held since 1993.

Does a service provider really own the names of entities named long before it began providing their services?

Or did the Parks Service monumentally botch the contract language that compels Delaware North to sue?

That will be decided in court or by the delivery of a boatload of taxpayer money to the company to make the lawsuit disappear. Names aren’t cheap.

Nor are they always permanent. Delaware North, by the way, is headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., but nobody in Buffalo seems to be complaining.

So with this name game apparently headed to court, The Bee’s Joan Barnett Lee and I headed to Yosemite on Wednesday, where we ate lunch in the magnificent dining room of that big stone-and-concrete what’s-its-name, and chatted with park visitors to see what they thought about it.

Specifically, if the company wins in court, the feds won’t pay and someone needs to think up new names for these places, what would work?

“Name it after John Muir,” said Fresno resident Cindi Rossi, in reference and deference to the naturalist who made Yosemite famous. Then she turned to her husband, Joe. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Of course, my dear,” he replied with a wink. Agreeing with a wife generally is a good thing, the wink implied.

She added that it might be a good idea even without the dispute.

“Ahwahnee … Wawona (another hotel at the park),” she said. “It’s hard to keep the names straight.”

Joe Rossi, meanwhile, can’t believe the name issue ever was in question.

“If you buy something,” he said, “shouldn’t all that be spelled out in the contract?”

Eric and Mickie Hoff, down from Washington state, suggested that any new name be derived from the Mi-Wok meaning of Ahwahnee, which is “Mouth.” The Indians thought the area resembled the mouth of a bear.

But since nothing really stood out – Bear Mouth Hotel probably wouldn’t be a new-name finalist – they offered an amended version of the Rossi’s “John Muir Hotel.”

“Just call it ‘The Muir,’ ” Mickie Hoff said.

“Yes,” her husband agreed.

Meanwhile, Redondo Beach resident Kyle Taylor, a frequent visitor to the park, prefers “The Big Rock Hotel.”

We never got around to renaming Curry Village or Badger Pass. That will have be another discussion for another day, and another trip to Yosemite on the company’s dime.

But keep this in mind: For 94 years, The Yosemite Park & Curry Co., served as the park’s concessionaire. It eventually became part of corporate giant MCA, which was acquired by Japanese giant Matsushita. The Park Service wasn’t about to have a Japanese company running the concessions in an American national park. They didn’t claim to retain ownership to these names when Delaware North took over in 1993.

This, from an LA Times story when the park got its new concessionaire that year:

“Delaware North also agreed to buy Curry Co. assets – buildings and equipment – and then turn them over the federal government.”

Naming rights of those assets isn’t mentioned in the story, and that is part of the issue. Who really owns them?

And since Delaware North wants to play proper noun hardball – valuing its intellectual property at Yosemite at upwards of $51 million – it might be time to rename these icon places. Just recently, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali, which has been Native Americans’ name for the mountain for centuries.

The same thing could happen to The Ahwahnee.

“They’ve got to call it something,” visitor Lindsay Nakayuma said.

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