The president's National Parks Centennial Initiative is still but a dream, nothing more than dried ink on paper and spoken words that are now but memories. For sure, there is excitement building around this heady concept to raise an extra $3 billion for the national park system by 2016, when the National Park Service turns 100, and lots of behind-the-scenes planning to make this drive a reality.
But there are huge impediments to the challenge. Congress is the major one. Without its approval and authorization, the fund-raising program that would match $100 million of private dollars with $100 million of federal appropriations each and every year for the next decade is nothing but a grandiose vision.
But let's say that Congress goes along. Can the private sector, which I don't think ever has given $100 million in any one year to the park system, do so for ten consecutive years? To try and answer that question, I turned to some of the experts, such as the folks at the National Park Foundation, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
Their answer? While the goal certainly is ambitious, there's no reason it can't succeed.
Giving to national parks, says Vin Cipolla, the president and chief executive officer of the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the Park Service, currently pales when compared to the number of multi-million-dollar and even billion-dollar charities that exist today.
"The amount of money that's raised today (for the national park system) doesn't in my mind approach the contemporary threshold of what can be raised by organizations with these kinds of opportunities and needs," he tells me, referring to the parks. "Our hope that what's happening right now with the Centennial Challenge is it will be a catalytic event and program that will start to connect the dots between parks and donors in a much more compelling way. I really do believe that this is going to have a really serious impact in helping us make those connections."
It certainly will have to make a serious impact.
As I noted the other day in dissecting the FY08 budget proposed for the Park Service, the National Park Foundation raised only about $16 million in "contributions and gifts" -- ie, cash -- during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005, the last year data is available for. Add to that the roughly $17 million raised annually by the 150 friends groups around the country that are affiliated with parks and the $26 million or so chipped in by 65 Cooperating Associations, and you're little more than halfway towards that $100 million golden ring.
At a time when charities are raising $14 million a year for the National Tropical Botanical Garden, $97 million for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and more than $19 million annually for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, why has giving relatively lagged for the 390-unit national park systems?
"National parks are a tougher proposition within the charitable community for a lot of reasons, and probably foremost among those reasons is the fact that, obviously, donors, whether they're individuals, foundations or corporations, are going to first see the parks as a responsibility of the federal government," says Cipolla.
And yet, throughout much, if not all, of national park history private philanthropy has played a major role in setting aside landscapes that otherwise would have become private property. I've frequently mentioned that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent roughly $25 million of his own wealth on national parks. He personally provided the land that today comprises the bulk of Grand Teton, led the way to create the carriage paths that wind through Acadia, and contributed greatly to Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Yosemite, and many others.
Other examples of giving can be found at the National Park Foundation. "There is no way that the federal government is going to be able to take care of everything associated with its parks, from operations and maintenance all the way to programming," Cipolla says. "The private side is the catalytic side in being able to do things, to spur things forward."
Yet some of us tremble at the thought of a concerted effort by the government to go out and ask the private sector to contribute upwards of a billion dollars to the park system over the next decade.
As I alluded to last week, and which the Kansas City Star and Baltimore Sun mentioned this week, there are concerns about how much corporate presence we should have in the parks.
It's easy to see how, with this administration, that a donate-to-your-favorite-park plan easily could become an invitation for companies, industries, and special interests to advertise themselves in the parks, Laura Scott writes in the Star. Further, private donors might feel they have a right to dictate how parks are to be maintained, or where trails will be built, or how big campgrounds will be. Philanthropy quickly could turn into commercialism.
Over at the Sun, the paper's editorial board opines that the Bush administration already is too cozy with private interests when it comes to national parks and their missions.
The Bush administration has proved unduly sympathetic to the recreational vehicle industry, which contends its customers aren't content to tool through nearby forests (on snowmobiles) but want to be able to ride up to Old Faithful. Soliciting donations to the parks from those and other businesses, as well as foundations and individuals, raises the prospect that such influence will only grow, says the Sun.
And yet, at the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Executive Director Michael Cary says he's never encountered such attempted influence.
"In my experience in dealing with major donors, no one has ever said we would like to name a building, or 'we expect it.' That has never happened," he says.
What recognition they do receive is mention in the foundation's annual report and various other publications and, if requested, help with a press release announcing the donation.
"These are all things that we can do that are perfectly consistent with Director's Order 21 (which pertains to charitable giving to the parks)," says Cary. "But I have never had to fend off a sharp expectation that something was going to be named in Yellowstone, that's not been an issue for us."
At the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Executive Director Houck Medford, who last March went on record opposing an infusion of private dollars into a park's operations budget, agrees with Cary that there are mechanisms in place to prevent commercialism of the parks in return for private giving.
"I just feel like there are too many safeguards in place right now, particularly with Director's Order 21," Medford says. "The people who are monitoring that in the (NPS's) national partnership office, they seem to be doing a great job with that."
Back at the National Park Foundation, Cipolla believes the time has come when recognition of private donors to the parks can be satisfactorily accomplished outside the parks' borders.
"I think that one shift that is going to have to occur will be the way in which we look at recognition," he says. "It seems to me that over the last number of years that we've looked at this far too conventionally, and we've looked at a donor recognition, or even cause-related marketing, at one point as too terrestrial.
"We've looked at the park itself and the park asset itself and tried to achieve a way to bring donor recognition into the park. To me that shows I think a lack of creativity on everybody's part. I think in today's environment, in today's media environment, that the multiple opportunities for information and impressions and to communicate with the consumer allows so much potential creativity in the way that parks and donors can work together to relieve the park of the pressure on the terrestrial environment, of that pressure to have to convey the recognition.
"You could do things on a web site, you don't have to do them on a park bench, or a sign in a park, or at that gate."
Key to this fund-raising program, if it indeed comes to fruition, is that Congress realize that the private sector is not replacing the government's own investment in the park system. Friends groups, as Medford often puts it, exist to provide a "margin of excellence" for their parks, not to be viewed as an obligatory revenue stream to support day-to-day operations and maintenance.
"It was only two weeks ago that our park superintendent asked us to cross the line from providing a margin of excellence to a margin of survival by providing funding for seasonal employees," he tells me. "Well, the first year may be fine, but then that word, 'obligation,' becomes much easier to use and becomes more of a centerpiece for when you have that conversation in the second year."
"The question I expect that all park partners address is what's called the 'offset' question," he says. "'Does my contribution result in diminished public support for the park?' And Yellowstone's budget in absolute dollars continues to grow, so there is not an offset. What we do is additive at Yellowstone."
If Congress tries to equate philanthropy with base operations, adds Cipolla, charitable giving will dry up.
"That absolutely has to be avoided. I think there's a built-in mechanism because the private sector won't support that line of thinking," he says pointedly. "They won't. The charitable contributions will not be there. ... Generally speaking, the charitable community is going to require that their dollars are being used in ways that enhance, that advance, that would do work at that margin of excellence."
Now, if Congress fails to embrace the Centennial Challenge and authorize the matching component outlined by the president, these groups will not go away but rather continue to raise money for the parks. But, believes Cipolla, the Congress will have missed a wonderful opportunity to bolster the national park system.
"I think that this is innovative," he says. "People need to be invited to approach it in a new way, and this does that. It renews interest and commitment and creativity, and if that were to dissipate it would be unfortunate. We would continue on, and there are a lot of very interesting things that we're doing and developing, but this whole idea, this idea of this challenge certainly helps."