National Parks Traveler's Essential Friends + Gateways

Editor's note: Traveler's 2nd Annual Essential Friends + Gateways publication, a collaboration between the Traveler and a core group of national park foundations, cooperating associations, trusts, friends groups, and gateway communities, is aimed at enhancing and furthering the now nationally significant role of these organizations and entities in the preservation and enjoyment of our parks.

Budgetary shortfalls loom like potholes on the road to the National Park Service’s 2016 centennial celebration. Campgrounds in the Smokies have closed, tours at Mammoth Cave canceled, and Yellowstone would have opened later than usual this spring—without the aid of its gateway towns.

Those are just a few examples of how the federal budget crisis has impacted the world’s greatest park system. Yet thanks to the sweat, ingenuity, and charitable dollars raised and distributed by friends groups from coast-to-coast, the parks are managing. Trail maintenance is being covered in some parks, youth programs taken care of in others and, despite the loss of more than 1,000 seasonal rangers and 900 permanent positions in the Park Service, the sheer inspiration of the park experience continues to be accessible and enjoyed throughout the nation.

When the National Park Service can’t fully meet its commitment to preserve the parks due to budgetary duress, two essential supporters jump in to fill the void: the friends groups, cooperating associations, trusts, and foundations that bolster park funding and programs, and the gateway communities that support the parks and add to the national park experience in so many ways.

Friends Of The Parks

Anyone passionate about our national parks knows that today is a time of national hardship for the National Park System. How timely it is that we’re simultaneously seeing the rise of what may be our “Second Best Idea” in the form of friends groups, cooperating associations, trusts, and foundations that support our parks.

These “essential friends” have never served a more important role. Across the nation, millions of dollars are raised by these organizations and put to work in the parks to supplement, and complement, park efforts. Wildlife research is made possible in places such as Glacier and Yellowstone, trails are kept up in Acadia and the Grand Canyon, youth and teacher outreach is made possible along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cooperating associations provide interpretive materials in the form of guidebooks, trail maps, and natural history publications.

The work of these organizations is a nationally significant but largely behind-the-scenes story. National park friends groups are nothing less than a tapestry of “local” movements having nationwide impact. They’re the biggest national story many people don’t recognize...but one they benefit from on every park visit.

A Look At Some Essential Friends And Gateways

Alternate Text

Essential Gateways

The sad irony about ongoing national park budget cuts is the drain on local economies. Studies show every federal dollar spent on our parks generates $4 of economic impact in tourism, money drawn into often small gateway communities throughout the most rural and even isolated parts of our country.

That economic impact has made a lot of news lately. But turn that around for a moment and consider the impact of gateway towns on national parks.

Charming gateway communities play a tremendous role in the experience of national parks. In actuality, the better the gateway town, the better the national park experience.

Gateway towns are essential parts of the park experience, not just as places to eat and sleep, but as destinations themselves, where an entire, unique spectrum of attractions and side trips expands a national park vacation.

But that’s just how park gateways affect visitors. These vibrant communities also step up for the parks, as hotbeds of support for park friends groups, and also by lending a direct hand, as Yellowstone’s gateways did to remove snow and open the park this spring.

There’s a real experience waiting for you this summer—an essential, inspiring pairing of a great national park and its great gateways. In Essential Friends + Gateways, National Parks Traveler brings you that delightful combo, with a little help from locals who are passionate about their parks—and about protecting and preserving them.

Take The Next Step

Park friends, trusts, and foundations all hold their parks in the highest esteem, but the importance of this work hits home when you read Steve and Macrina Galloway’s inspiring story. This husband and wife team of Vietnam veterans serve as volunteer docents for the Trust for the National Mall. As the Galloways interact with vets at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or the WW II Memorial, it’s readily understandable why they might say they’re “deeply honored to do this work.”

But there’s a larger truth in the Galloways’ work—and the efforts of anyone who volunteers for parks. Some might say the National Mall and its sacred monuments are not just “another national park”—but neither are all those other units of the National Park System. In reality, all lie at the heart of our heritage.

The National Park System is full of national battlefields, military parks, historic, and other significant sites. Even “traditional” national parks are places of overarching national and natural significance. In these times of budgetary decline for “America’s Best Idea”—every American should feel moved to make a personal passion out of their favorite park, whether it celebrates our country’s natural beauty or bravery in the battle to protect our highest ideals. We owe preservation, and consecration, to both.

In lieu of national consensus on funding for our parks, it is time to act as individuals. This summer, while you’re sampling the essentially American experience of our national parks, we urge you to join the ranks of their increasingly essential friends.

Coming Sunday: The Trust for the National Mall: New Efforts to Save Our Icons