With A Little Help From Friends Groups, National Parks Benefit

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Friends groups support national parks in many ways. Grand Teton National Park Foundation created the website discovergrandteton.com for the park.

“I get by with a little help from my friends,” sang the Beatles.

When it comes to national parks, it had better be a lot of help. The National Park Service often struggles with funding. Now, with tighter budgets and more demands, friends groups are proving invaluable in helping out parks.

Many units of the National Park System have affiliated friends groups. Some are very strong with many donors. Others are small and local. The Moores Creek National Battlefield Association may be the oldest continually operating friends group in the National Park System. Its forerunner, the Moores Creek Monument Association, was founded in 1899 to protect the Revolutionary War-era Moores Creek battlefield in eastern North Carolina.

Most park friends groups are much younger. In Arizona, Friends of Saguaro National Park dates only to 1996. Bob Newtson, the group’s executive director, was hired a decade later. The pride of the friends group is apparent when you discuss its achievements with him.

“Last year, we reached 11,000 school kids,” Mr. Newtson said.

But even that wasn’t easy, as sometimes the hardest part of showing children their home park is getting them to the park in the first place. To do that, Friends of Saguaro spent $25,000 in 2013 to support school bus transportation for fourth- and fifth-grade students in Tucson. For many children, these buses are their only way to get to the park.

“We focus on schools with high percentage of under-served populations. We feel an obligation to get kids here to see the park in their backyard,” explained Mr. Newtson.

The friends group has even built upon the Park Service’s Junior Ranger program with Cactus Rangers, a program for high school students who have come up through the Junior Ranger program. They help monitor Saguaro cacti as well as the Sonoran Desert Tortoise, which is threatened in most of its range.

But the friends group aids the park in more ways than simply getting students interested in the national park. Last year Friends of Saguaro supported Saguaro with more than $142,000 in projects.

“Is there more pressure on friends groups now?” I asked directly.

“I think that we have more pressure. Uncertainty in the park budget is in some sense even worse than poor funding,” replied Mr. Newtson. “The park cannot plan, but it also creates uncertainty in us. If the park doesn’t have the accompanying resources, we can’t go to our donors and say that a particular project will be done. It’s tough to ask donors to support a project that may not get done.”

Mr. Newtson is constantly impressed with park staff. “They haven’t had a pay raise in three years. They’ve met all sorts of difficulties including the sequester and budgets problems. Yet they’re dedicated as ever.”

In Florida, the South Florida National Parks Trust, under the leadership of Executive Director Don Finefrock, supports Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve.

The Trust’s roots date to a 2002 environmental court case against Carnival Cruise Lines. The state Attorney General was looking for a place to put the money that had been paid out by the cruise line. First, community service payments, as they are called, were awarded to the individual South Florida parks through the National Park Foundation. Now these disbursements, for natural resource protection and restoration, are managed by the Trust.

Another project the Trust has been involved with stems from the long-standing need for lodging at Flamingo at the southern end of Everglades. Hurricane Wilma clobbered the area in 2005, and there hasn’t been a lodge since then. The Trust stepped in and underwrote a project at the University of Miami to have architecture students design and build a prototype “Eco-Tent.”

When Mr. Finefrock described it, I pictured a large tent capable of sleeping many, like a hostel under canvas. Instead, it’s actually one tent available to sleep one family. The tent is put up during the winter and spring and taken down before hurricane season. This demonstration project gives the park management a prototype to show a potential concessionaire.

Over 11 years, the Trust has provided more than $5 million for the parks, yet it realizes more is needed.

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Children visiting their ancestral home in Katmai National Park / Alaska Geographic.

“The Trust feels more pressure to increase our donations because the parks feel squeezed,” says Mr. Finefrock. “We’re a small organization pulled in a lot of different directions. The needs are huge. Most of the programs wouldn’t happen without the Friends. The average individual donation is about $100.”

In Alaska, Alaska Geographic supports that state’s national parks, forests, and refuges. “We’re both a friends group and cooperating association,” explained Sarah Warnock, the group’s communications director. “We interact with the park in two different ways.”

The Murie Science and Learning Center, located at the entrance to Denali National Park, engages visitors by offering courses and exhibits. Popular field seminars include wildflowers and the Big Five: Large Animals in the Park. For two to four days, you get to stay in tent cabins, share meals, and explore Denali.

In its role as a cooperating association, Alaska Geographic operates 40 bookstores in parks and forests throughout Alaska. Proceeds after expenses are returned to the parks for special projects. In 2012, they funded a trip to Katmai National Park for local youth and their elders. The participants visited their ancestral homes that were lost to volcanic explosions a hundred years before.

Back in the Lower 48, the Great Smoky Mountains Association manages seven bookstores in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It also publishes books and maps about the park from its quarterly park newspaper to the authoritative Hiking Trails of the Smokies.

In 2011, the Association built a $3 million Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Cherokee, North Carolina, entrance to the park. The previous visitor center had been a “temporary visitor center” built by the Civilian Conservation Corps more than 60 years earlier.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need friends groups. National parks would be properly funded. However, these days friends groups are more essential than ever to counter federal shortages.