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Iconic Ahwahnee Hotel sign stolen on eve of Yosemite name changes

A historic sign that welcomed visitors to The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park was stolen just days before it was due to be covered up as part of a fierce legal battle between the park and its outgoing concessions operator.

Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said the sign was taken sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning. The Ahwahnee’s name, in place since 1927, will change officially at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, when Aramark takes over the park’s concessions contract from Delaware North.

Curry Village, Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass Ski Area and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls also will change names. They will become Half Dome Village, Big Trees Lodge, Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area and Yosemite Valley Lodge, respectively.

Gediman said park rangers are investigating the theft of the iconic rounded sign. Whether the crime was a political statement or simple act of vandalism is irrelevant, he added, as this is a federal offense and is taken seriously.

As for the name changes, both park and Aramark employees will be hard at work just after early Tuesday morning, Gediman said. The park is responsible for changing road signage, while Aramark will cover the existing signs with temporary canvas signage.

“We feel strongly that these iconic facilities, and their historic names, ultimately belong to the American people,” Gediman said. “But with open litigation, these name changes are necessary to continue service without disruption.”

Aramark spokesman David Freireich said the company has worked with the Park Service for the last six months to make sure “tomorrow looks no different than today.”

However, the merchandise stands will look quite different.

“Due to the outgoing concessionaire’s claim, we are unable to sell certain items,” Freireich said. These items are: apparel, pens, mugs and stickers.

To combat this, the company will unveil a new line of merchandise branded simply as Yosemite, not Yosemite National Park. Items that do not fall into those four categories will continue to be sold in shops with the original name on them.

The company also will roll out a new website, www.travelyosemite.com, as well as a new phone number for reservations and general inquiries: 888-413-8869. Both will begin accepting reservations Tuesday.

Freireich said that 95 percent of current Delaware North concessions staff members were retained by Aramark.

“The names and faces of employees will remain the same to ensure a smooth and seamless transition,” he said.

Canvas signage will be used temporarily until Aramark can permanently remove the existing signs, Freireich said. Among the signs that will be coming down: the large Camp Curry Village sign at Curry Village, which opened in 1899.

The National Park Service announced the name changes in January. Delaware North contends the trademarks associated with these buildings came with the concessions contract – a claim that outraged the public and led to an intense legal battle with the park that still is working its way through the courts.

On Feb. 26, Delaware North sent a letter to Aramark President Bruce Fears offering the trademarks, which its lawsuit claims are worth $44 million, to the company for immediate use, and “the amount of compensation, if any, to which Delaware North is entitled from the National Parks Service and/or Aramark for that property would be determined in due course.” The names in question were legally trademarked by Delaware North, but the government believes their value to be less than $2 million.

Aramark issued a strongly worded statement that condemned Delaware North, saying it “forced” the National Park Service to change the names with its ownership claims and demanded “an outrageously inflated price over (the National Park Service’s) fair market value.”

“(Delaware North’s) attempt to offer to assign these names to Aramark or any another company misses the inescapable fact the names are not theirs to ‘assign’ in the first place,” the statement said. “Their proposal reinforces that (Delaware North) continues to completely miss the point the Yosemite names belong to (the National Park Service) and the American people, not (Delaware North) or Aramark or any other company.”

In a new turn, the National Park Service filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to void the existing trademarks held by Delaware North at Yosemite National Park.

“These names were trademarked without our approval, and this petition asks the trademark office to cancel them,” Gediman said. “However, this doesn’t change what we’re doing tomorrow.”

Gediman said Delaware North offered the names to the Park Service in December in a similar proposal to the one recently sent to Aramark. It was turned down.

If the patent office grants the request, the Yosemite names will be changed back immediately, Gediman said.

Gediman did not have a timetable for the resolution of either the recent petition or the ongoing lawsuit. He hopes the changes will be temporary, but said all park officials will use the new names until the litigation is resolved.

The Ahwahnee is missing its sign, but that may become a moot point, at least for now. When it opens Tuesday, it will be The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

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