An initiative to build a $1 billion endowment for national parks in these distressed economic times is bold and ambitious, one that could do much good for a National Park System that Congress has been unable, or unwilling, to fully fund. But it won't happen overnight, and it will take continued support from administrations yet to be elected.
And yet, it might also be seen as modest.
True, it's only a third of the $3 billion the Bush administration envisioned could be raised through its Centennial Initiative. But a billion-dollar fund earning 5 percent interest still could generate a steady (if not heady, for the task at hand) stream of perhaps $50 million a year that could be spent in many ways throughout the park system.
What must be determined is whether the political will is there to create such an endowment. After all, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who called for the endowment in August, and Neil Mulholland, the chief executive officer of the National Park Foundation that is key to raising the money, both are political appointees. If President Obama is not re-elected next year and they are replaced, will their successors share the vision?
Similar efforts in recent years have not fared well.
President George W. Bush's goal of raising $3 billion for the Park Service to prepare the park system for the agency's centennial in 2016 proved too ambitious for Congress. That initiative was built on a financial trifecta -- $1 billion was to come from private donors, another $1 billion would come from a federal match of those private dollars, and the third $1 billion would come from ten years of an extra $100 million -- a presidential bump, if you will -- in the Park Service's budget.
Congress never fully came through with its share, the presidential bump pretty much vanished when President Bush left office, and private philanthropy never materialized to the extent envisoned, although Mr. Jarvis thought "somewhere over $200 million" was received.
There also was a bipartisan effort in the Senate to bootstrap the program by creating a National Park Centennial Fund that would stream at least $100 million a year to the Park Service from 2008 through 2016, up to $1 billion, without need for a private match. But it, too, failed to gain traction.
The latest call for an endowment was made by Director Jarvis when he released the agency's Call to Action to Park Service staff. The idea is that the money would be raised through private donations through a campaign developed with the National Park Foundation and national park friends groups.
While times are decidedly hard across America, and the fine details of building the campaign are still being worked out, Mr. Mulholland doesn't think the goal is unrealistic.
“The endowment, it’s something we very much believe in, something we very much want to do," Mr. Mulholland told the Traveler during a conference call along with Director Jarvis. "It’s conceptual at this time. It could take on many shapes and form. We feel this needs to be, it needs to be a partnership, both nationally and locally. So that the individual parks, the individual friends groups, are part of the discussions, are part of the organization, and are part of the execution.
"... I see this as something that’s not for five years or 10 or 20. It’s for the next century," Mr. Mulholland continued. "It’s sticking a stake in the ground today, where we can take an action today that the reality is we’re not going to benefit from ourselves, but the next generation, the generation behind them, and we’re going to be looking 50, 60, 100 years down the road where people will be saying, ‘Thank goodness they created that endowment in 2011-2012 and that we have this here to help support and sustain the national parks.”
It really isn't audacious, if you think about it in the context of how the government spends money and how much corporate America has in its coffers. Don't forget, the U.S. government lost -- lost! -- billions of dollars it shipped by the pallet-load to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 to help rebuild the country.
Many corporations are flush with cash these days, despite the economy. The Internet powerhouse Google, it was recently reported, had $39 billion of cash on hand. Elsewhere in corporate America, companies through 2008, 2009, and 2010 enjoyed profits that were "$343 billion higher than earlier estimated."
Director Jarvis, who in 2008 and early 2009 was the Park Service's liaison to the Second Century Commission formed by the National Parks Conservation Association to brainstorm how best to launch the Park Service into its second century, said many of those on the commission recommended that an endowment for the parks be created.
"At the final meetings at the Great Smoky Mountains, the two co-chairs, Bennett Johnston and Howard Baker, and Sandra Day O’Connor and others sat around and said, what is the one thing, what is the one recommendation out of all the recommendations that they made, that if you looked back 100 years from now, would be the most important, and they all agreed that it was the endowment," he said. "If you think about other major institutions in this country, the Smithsonian, Harvard, that are intended to be around for future generations, they all have endowments. And we’re a perpetuity organization on an annual appropriation."
The Park Service director acknowledged the economic struggles that are sweeping the country, the pressures on state park systems that are leading to the closures of some parks and have led even to the help of the Park Service to keep some state parks open. Yet he's optimistic that once the endowment campaign is explained, there will be donors ready to help.
"I think with the high level of visibility, the fact that we have a legislative partner in the National Park Foundation, we have many friends organizations out there, to set a high goal like $1 billion is not unreasonable," Mr. Jarvis said. "To create a campaign around it in partnership with our many friends, is a gift, really, to the future of the National Park System."
Part of the endowment could be built by aging Baby Boomers who, having enjoyed and been enamored by national parks most of their lives, want to leave something behind for them.
"There’s going to be a significant aggregrate transfer of wealth over the next 40 years, 30 years," said Mr. Mulholland. "That’s why we want to get this in place today, because we think the opportunities ... with planned giving, people want to build a legacy from their own lives. They’ve had this great relationship and experiences with the national parks, they’re going to want to perpetuate things, and that will be a component to it, an ongoing planned giving campaign, both locally and nationally.”
As the idea is just now germinating, how such a fund could be used to help the nearly 400 units of the National Park System remains to be determined. There are some parks with strong friends groups -- the Yosemite Conservancy, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Friends of Acadia, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, and the Glacier Fund, for example -- that have contributed millions of dollars for projects ranging from trail work and campground rehabilitation to wildlife research.
But there are countless other units of the park system that have no friends groups to help them make ends meet.
“I think that the National Park Foundation, who really serves to assist those smaller parks that do not have friends or organizations and probably won’t for one reason or another, has a line to their strategic plan to their giving to parks along very much consistent with our Call to Action, around youth engagement, around education, around connecting people to their parks, and I think over time a lot of that will evolve," said Mr. Jarvis.
Key, though, is that Congress doesn't see an endowment as a revenue stream to accomplish day-to-day needs in the parks and as a result reduces the Park Service's annual appropriation, he said.
"We’ve got to be careful on building an endowment that’s not viewed as an offset to our appropriation, and that it’s not used for just adding to our infrastructure inventory and things like that, that it is principally focused on delivering program and content, creating that bright line of excellence in the service," he said.
“And keeping people connected to the parks, too," Mr. Mulholland quickly added, "and keeping the continuity across the generations."