By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Visitors to Yosemite National Park were greeted with an unfamiliar name for the park's most iconic hotel on Tuesday as a bitter legal battle over its trademarked name raged on, while thieves made off with a sign for the famed Ahwahnee before it could be changed.
The Ahwahnee Hotel, which was built in 1927, and other popular sites such as Curry Village were stripped of the monikers they held for decades after the park's longtime concessionaire, Delaware North Company, lost the lucrative contract to operate hotels and other commercial sites in the park to competitor Aramark. Delaware North sued the National Park Service in September, claiming that it owned the trademarks.
Aramark formally took over the park's concession on Tuesday.
Temporary banners, in some cases made of tape or canvas and plastered over the original signs, identified the Ahwahnee by its new name, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
Curry Village is now called Half Dome Village, and the Wawona Hotel, built in 1876 and like the Ahwahnee a National Historic Landmark, is known as Big Trees Lodge. The name changes were not reflected on official websites as of Tuesday afternoon.
"The signs are temporary because we do want to retain the (historic) names, but with the new contract starting and a compressed time frame we just wanted to get those up," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.
The National Park Service on Friday filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office challenging the trademarks now that Delaware North no longer has an association with Yosemite, Gediman said.
Attorneys for the Park Service have claimed in court papers that Delaware North quietly trademarked the names without telling the government and called the move part of a business strategy by the company.
If the court battle rages on for months, as expected, the temporary signs will be replaced with more permanent markers, Gediman said.
Delaware North says it was required to buy Yosemite's so-called intellectual property when it was first awarded the concessions contract in 1993 and trademarked the names as a routine business practice.
Meanwhile, park rangers were investigating the apparent theft over the weekend of a small round sign for the Ahwahnee Hotel, formerly fastened to a stone pillar on the entrance to the lodge.
Gediman said the sign disappeared late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, though it was not yet clear if the crime was related to the name-change controversy. The thieves would faces federal charges, he said.
Last month three members of the California Assembly introduced legislation barring the state from awarding concessions to any company seeking such trademarks.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Leslie Adler)