Leadership Summit: Building For the Future
Now the hard work begins. Congress needs to be cajoled to pass the president's Centennial Initiative, new-found friends need to cash-in, and the national park system needs some loving attention if the National Park Service's centennial nine years hence is to truly be noteworthy.
Two-and-a-half days of meetings in Austin, Texas, at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy were energizing and hope-inspiring. They produced excitement about the centennial, spawned thought-provoking panel discussions on how partnerships and philanthropy could provide a much-needed boost for the perpetually cash-strapped Park Service, and held out hope that, with some decidedly concerted efforts, the national parks won't begin to decay once the Baby Boom generation that loves them so dearly fades away.
First Lady Laura Bush spoke at the gathering, as did two cabinet secretaries -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Jr. -- Park Service Director Mary Bomar, captains of industry, and purse holders of foundations intrigued, if not yet entirely persuaded, about the prospect of giving to the parks.
"There's nothing like being awed by the grandeur of Denali, overwhelmed by the vastness of Crater Lake, or humbled by the centuries of human history in the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. We want everyone to have the opportunity to make memories in our national parks, especially our children," the First Lady said Monday during her keynote address. "Improvements to our national parks and historical sites benefit every state. ... I urge Congress to support, and that means fund, this very important (Centennial Initiative.)"
First Lady Laura Bush addresses Leadership Summit (1:26)
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Of course, the Centennial Initiative alone won't provide all the salve the national parks need. Most of the eligible products announced so far don't address long-standing problems. Most, if not all, parks are short-staffed; at Acadia National Park, for instance, one fifth of the 100 authorized full-time jobs are vacant due to funding woes. At other parks, positions of retiring personnel have been left vacant so the money for their salaries can be spent on operational costs. And, of course, there's the well-known $8 billion backlog in maintenance needs across the 391-unit park system.
Beyond that, questions hang over how partnerships and philanthropy will be married to benefit the parks. Where do you draw the line between helping the Park Service and replacing it with volunteers and concessionaires, and how do you engage common Americans to donate to the Centennial Initiative are just two.
Seemingly silencing that second concern is the fact that the American public is a very generous lot. One of the summit's speakers pointed out that $295 billion was donated to charitable causes in 2006 -- $222.9 billion from individuals. For fiscal 2007, that sum was projected to rise to $3.7 trillion. The trick for those supporting the Centennial Initiative is to corral just a fraction of those dollars for the parks.
Secretary Kempthorne told the conferees that he hopes the Centennial Initiative ignites a new era of philanthropy in the parks. At the same time, he and others stressed that philanthropic interests will not give to the parks if their dollars are used to replace, rather than supplement, federal funding. Too, they maintained that no corporation wants to advertise its presence in the parks, and that there are Park Service regulations in place to prevent that from happening anyway.
Mr. Kempthorne said the initiative, if passed, would provide funding to preserve lost Civil War battlefields, better protect cultural resources, and even create a fund dedicated to park land purchases, largely to close "holes" in parks created by inholdings.
"It's within our grasp to achieve excellence at all our national parks in America," he said.
Not everyone was convinced. Some of the smaller friends groups told me they worry they don't have the cachet to entice philanthropic funds to help pay for their needs. In response to that, however, was mention that if Congress approves the president's preferred funding proposal -- that private dollars be matched by federal dollars -- then whenever a dollar of federal funding is matched and released half be directed towards the project in question and half go into a discretionary fund for other parks' projects.
Beyond raising dollars for the parks, there must be successful efforts to entice the younger generations -- the Gen-Ys and their younger siblings -- into the parks.
"Our children have been seduced by the dark side of video games," Park Service Director Mary Bomar said at one point. "Is there anyone surprised that more Americans know Homer Simpson's home town than Abraham Lincoln's? Yes, Springfield (Ill.).
"... We are locked in battle to make sure that we get the hearts and minds of Americans back, to re-engage the American public with their national parks."
NPS Director Mary Bomar addresses Leadership Summit (1:45)
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As the centennial draws near, much work needs to be done. Strategies for raising public awareness of the centennial as well as for generating contributions will be necessary. Park friends groups will have to court philanthropies and convince them they have worthwhile projects. Urban, cultural, and historical parks must benefit as much as the Western landscape parks.
And then, of course, there's the issue of climate change. But that's fodder for another post.