Essential Friends: Ensuring Excellence In The National Parks

National park friends groups work to preserve iconic settings, such as the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. One project taken on by the Yellowstone Park Foundation helped restore and improve Artist Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Essential Friends: Local Passion, National Impact

As lovers of national parks look forward to the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service—guardian of ”America’s Best Idea”—there has never been a better time to profile the rise and role of what may be our “Second Best Idea”—the friends groups, trusts, and foundations that support those parks.

As federal dollars for parks have dwindled, an inspiring, ongoing proliferation of park friends groups and charitable foundations have stepped up to offset shortfalls, to help parks continue to attain excellence; in short, to provide essential funding.

These “essential friends” have never served a more important role. Their work is a nationally significant—but largely untold—story. Until now. National park friends groups are exciting “local” movements having nationwide impact. They’re the biggest national story you’ve never heard about.

Our Future At Stake

National parks preserve our most incredible, and indelible, landscapes, our culture, and our history. In these tough economic times, the parks are even more important as accessible, low-cost destinations where people can escape the moment and create memories sure to renew our American spirit. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll find eight great national parks, from the Atlantic and the Appalachians to the Rockies, from Mexico to Canada. And you’ll meet the people who passionately step up to help “their parks” on our behalf.

They’re among the nation’s most innovative and energetic friends and foundations worthy of your support.

A Slow, Sad Slide

It’s difficult to point to a substantive drop in Park Service funding in any one year, says, Deny Galvin, Park Service deputy director from 1985-2001. Nevertheless, trends show that the agency’s budget has fared poorly over the years. From 1981-2010, if the Park Service’s budget had matched the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, he estimates that the agency would enjoy an annual budget of $4.6 billion—instead of the current $2.6 billion.

And over that period, Galvin points out, the budget for park operations—day-to-day operations, staffing, etc.—has grown, but budgets for construction, land acquisition, and the like, have dwindled. Today the agency’s overall budget represents 0.08 percent of the federal budget. “For every $1,000 the government spends,” Galvin says, “80 cents goes to national parks.”

The irony is that studies show that every dollar spent on our parks produces $4 of economic impact on America’s tourism sector, money drawn into large and small rural gateway communities throughout the country. The latest report showed the park system generated $31 billion and 258,000 jobs in 2010, an increase of $689 million and 11,500 jobs from 2009 levels. Those dollars—and Euros, Yuan, Pounds, and a world of other currencies—are spent by people attracted to the scenic, cultural, and historic values preserved in our parks.

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The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation makes it possible for rangers to visit classrooms.

Sadly, the discretionary spending in the federal budget that fuels the fluctuating resources of the Park Service is often what’s targeted when the axe needs to fall.

Help from Our Friends

Fortunately, the friends group movement stepped into that vacuum.

The public has been involved with parks from the start. “Some of our nation’s most treasured places—from Acadia to the Grand Tetons—were gifts by individuals to the American people,” says National Park Foundation President and CEO Neil Mulholland. “Today, the National Park Foundation is proud to stand with, support and establish Friends Groups to continue this noble tradition. Thanks to them our national parks will receive the local support they need into their next century and beyond.”

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The potential of friends groups for national parks seemed to catch fire with the Park Service in the 1980s. “Lee Iacocca’s early 1980s effort to refurbish the Statue of Liberty showed the national value of local effort,” says Galvin.

“The creation of friends groups is one of the most significant things that’s happened in the park system in the last 30 years,” Galvin says.

In the 1980s, “federal-funding trends made it more and more difficult for the Park Service to meet all its needs,” continues Galvin, “and the thought was that these organizations could raise money to build visitor centers in parks. These days, the opportunity for a park to build a visitor center with public funds is virtually nonexistent unless you get a congressional earmark.

“If you look at what friends groups do today,” says Galvin, “they build visitor centers, they rehabilitate buildings. But since the early days, friends groups have evolved to provide so much more for the parks.”

“The National Park Service is loved by a greater percentage of the American people than Ivory Soap is pure,” says Gary Everhardt, a former director of the National Park Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent who saw the road to completion. “The American people want to contribute.”

A National Tour of Answers for Park Problems

You can contribute too, thanks to the friends, foundations, and trusts that raise funds to improve campgrounds, pay for wildlife research, repair trails and much more. They even set up endowments to repair a given park’s trails forever. And, yes, they do build visitor centers, and so many other essential things.

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With no dramatic park funding increases in sight, and four years ahead of the centennial of the National Park Service, now is the right time for Americans to discover—and join— these inspiring friends groups. Their contributions are more effective, influential, indeed essential, than ever before.

Every one of the nearly 400 units of the National Park System is special, but for many Americans, there is that one park that epitomizes an image of our country, our grandest vistas, our most quintessential events. For about 150 of those parks, there are organized citizen stewards.

Each and every one of those groups out there are essential to those national parks. You will meet some of them in the following pages and during this year on National Parks Traveler.

We encourage you to read about them—and join. These groups are local, but you don’t need to live in Wyoming to love Yellowstone, or Maine to treasure Acadia. Nor do you need to be going to your favorite this summer. With a contribution you can visit in spirit, or recall the time you made that one park pilgrimage that the entire family remembers.

Or pass it on—give the kids a gift membership! A sense of ongoing stewardship may just encourage them to take their own kids (one day) and continue a family tradition that’s a national tradition, too.

Next Wednesday: Friends of Acadia, Partnering For Acadia's Future