Unmade in the USA

Enter a Yosemite National Park gift store. Now, try to find something made in America.

It might take some looking. Foreign-made products abound. But whether
that matters, and whether Uncle Sam should intervene, is a politically
complicated question whose resolution showcases how Congress works.

“I think that when American families visit our wonderful treasures
across the United States, that it would be nice if the souvenirs that
they take home with them were actually made in our country,” said Rep.
Jim Costa, D-Calif.

Under pressure from Costa, the National Park
Service is undertaking a first-of-its-kind study evaluating how to
encourage the sale of “authentic American-made souvenirs” in the
nation’s parks.

It could mean big money. The 600-plus concession operations nationwide gross more than $800 million annually.

Gift shop sales account for only a portion of that total, which also
covers everything from canoe rentals to hotel rooms. But with Costa’s
office claiming that upward of 90 percent of national park merchandise
comes from overseas, even a slight shift could prove momentous for some.

“I believe that it is patriotic that our souvenirs that we bring home
from our national treasures, in fact, be made by American workers,”
Costa said during House debate last year.

Concession operators, though, have another view of proposals to ban the sale of foreign goods.

“I don’t believe this idea is well thought out,” said Todd Hull,
executive director of the National Park Hospitality Association. “It’s
an ill-conceived idea.”

Even though the Park Service is
conducting its made-in-America study, the concessionaires were able to
fend off Costa’s original proposal that would have flatly prohibited
the sale of foreign-made merchandise in national parks.

disputed the estimate that 90 percent of park concession products come
from overseas, saying it sounded “a little high to me.” He warned that
forcing concessionaires to sell only made-in-America products could
“put many concessionaires out of business” because of the higher
prices. He observed how some products defy easy characterization _ for
instance, a T-shirt that’s made in China but has a park logo applied in
the United States. He questioned the fundamental fairness of a proposal
that would set tougher standards for stores inside Yosemite’s
boundaries compared to stores outside.

“The bill was a little on the unreasonable side,” said Claudia Welsh, manager of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite.

Although the Ansel Adams Gallery emphasizes local crafts, Welsh noted
that foreign-made goods are sold as well. A number of photographic
collections sold in the store are printed overseas. A more sensible
alternative to a ban on foreign goods, Welsh suggested, might be to
encourage the sale of locally made products by exempting them from fees
paid on other products.

Concessionaires run the gamut. Some are
small but well-known, like the Ansel Adams Gallery. Some are big and
getting bigger. The Buffalo-based Delaware North, for one, has reported
annual revenues of some $1.7 billion and runs major concessions at
Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and other national parks.

really try to make sure our retail stores offer unique products
specific to the location,” Delaware North Vice President Wendy Watkins
said, noting Yosemite-area crafts such as twig furniture and American
Indian dolls. “But when you get to T-shirts and caps, we do know they
are not manufactured in the United States.”

Costa first
introduced his made-in-America requirement in May, after a constituent
complained to him about finding foreign-made gifts in national parks.
Such made-in-America calls can be a popular Capitol Hill rallying cry.
Last month, the House required that Border Patrol uniforms be made in
the United States.

But the made-in-America campaigns can also clash with other priorities _ including securing good prices and necessary products.

Last year, for instance, the U.S. defense industry rallied against a House proposal that the Pentagon buy only American goods.

Costa won easy House approval for his proposal, as part of an Interior
Department funding bill. No one spoke against it. But by the time House
and Senate negotiators were done, the mandate became a simple study,
with a written report due next December.