National park partners -- nonprofit friends groups and cooperating associations -- are integral to the health of the National Park System in these days of economic malaise and political dogfighting. But is the National Park Service properly leveraging, or even monitoring, those groups? Are the groups functioning in the best interests of the parks?
Those are tough questions, questions that need clear answers to benefit both the parks, the Park Service, and the donors to those groups. And an examination of philanthropy and the National Park Service, in a book by the same name, points to problems that not only can arise, but which have actually come up.
Park partners are vital to the park system. Formed and supported by park lovers, these groups can help acquire lands for the parks, fund projects such as trail and campground restorations, pay for wildlife research, and underwrite facility construction. They can even help parks afford seasonal help (something they shouldn't have to do).
But, as Jacqueline Vaughn and Hanna J. Cortner found in their research, not all partners are firmly established, some over-reach in their ambition, and their aid to the parks could be misconstrued by Congress, which could respond by cutting park funding.
Surprisingly, according to the authors of Philanthropy And The National Park Service, the Park Service isn't entirely on top of park partners' activities, something they discovered while amassing information for their book.
...The Park Service itself was lacking the types of data we had hoped to access: basic information on the number of friends groups, current lists or directories of friends groups and cooperating associations, annual reports, or up-to-date financial statements on what is commonly referred to as "aid to the parks" -- one measure of how partners support an individual park unit.
A majority of friends groups also are not always properly focused on their own operations, according to the book. Citing a 2012 survey by the National Park Foundation, the authors found that many groups give short shrift to transparency and accountability.
"When asked the top three activities the group did as an organization, friends groups reported fundraising (57 percent), major events (52 percent), and program management (35 percent)," the authors noted. "The internal operations of the group, which conceivably included financial management, were listed as one of the organization's top three activities by only 17 percent of the respondents."
Such a lackadaisical approach to transparency and internal details can weaken a group's credibility, they add. Cooperating associations, on the other hand, often operate with budgets high enough to trigger the requirement that they file IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ for nonprofits, and so tend to pay better attention to their financials.
One aspect of park philanthropy is keeping it under control so commercialism doesn't creep into the parks, and so that local initiatives don't overwhelm national park landscapes.
Those threats weren't overlooked by the authors, who found a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office that "addressed several concerns Congress and others had raised about the potential risks of the philanthropic contributions the Park Service receives, including: inappropriately large construction projects promoted by fundraising funds that left taxpayers responsible for costly operations and maintenance; undue corporate influence, and the potential for commercialization of the parks.
"Other concerns addressed were activities where written agreements did not reflect changes in the scope of the projects, partnership projects that did not necessarily reflect the Park Service's own priorities, and failures to conform to existing fundraising policies."
As the authors noted, just because a friends group underwrites construction of a new facility in a park doesn't mean the Park Service isn't saddled in the end with higher operation and maintenance costs. But sometimes the Park Service invites those higher costs itself.
When Yellowstone National Park officials began looking a decade or so ago at replacing the 12,000 square-foot visitor center at Old Faithful, they envisioned a lofty new facility. And the Yellowstone Park Foundation came to their aid, raising $15 million towards the $27 million cost of a sprawling, 26,000-square-foot facility.
The new center, opened in 2010, is lavish by park visitor center standards. It contains, of course, the ubiquitous gift shop, and then expands to include a wing with great hands-on exhibits to teach you and your kids about Yellowstone's geothermal plumbing and wildlife. Then there's a theater, research area, and a cavernous lobby with windows 36 feet high to frame the famous geyser.
Knowing that this facility would generate higher utility costs, Yellowstone officials in 2009 were able to secure a $400,000 increase in their base operations budget to cover those costs, as well as staffing, and similar costs at the Canyon visitor center.
But how many parks have the clout of a Yellowstone, or Yosemite, or Grand Canyon to secure such an increase in base funding? And how many can count on groups such as the Yellowstone Park Foundation with the wherewithal to raise millions of dollars for such facilities?
But having that ability can lead to an even greater problem for the National Park System as a whole. There's the threat that the parks will become too dependent on park partners, the authors write, and that Congress just might take note of their accomplishments and decide the parks' budgets don't need as much as the Park Service requests.
Should friends and partners be building visitors centers and parking garages, providing transportation, supplying tools, or paying the salaries of seasonal staff? What about deferred maintenance? How much more of basic park activities will partners be expected to cover when future budget cuts are made, and if the private sector does continue to pick these things up why shouldn't Congress view private funding as a logical and preferred outcome?
Then, too, the authors raise the prospect of a park partner becoming too powerful and influential.
One superintendent, describing the situation in a former park assignment, commented that the group there 'operated under the Gold Rule. They have the gold, and so they get to rule'," they write. "In other instances, the success of the partnership may be dependent on a superintendent who basks in the partner's glory or one who chooses not to rock the boat because of the group's political or philanthropic connections, another unhealthy situation.
And there is the concern that a friends group might decide that its superintendent isn't responsive enough.
Sometimes, a powerful friends group can create "high tension" with a superintendent and/or the NPS when the group believes it can run things better than the Park Service and politically acts upon its positions This has happened in several cases where a group has bypassed a superintendent by going to higher ups in regional or Washington offices and bypassed the Park Service itself and gone to a state or a congressional delegation. In other cases, a group may have strong local political support and non-park partnerships it can successfully mobilize to play against a weaker park partner. There are 800-pound friend gorillas and 800-pound monster gorillas.
Some friends groups are growing beyond the original vision of a nonprofit organization that can provide "frosting" atop a park's federal budget. They are becoming huge organizations that are expanding into publishing, interpretive tours, and more commercial activities. To facilitate this, some are merging with cooperating associations and creating what the authors describe as "hybrid" partners. Both the Yosemite Conservancy, which merged the Yosemite Fund with the Yosemite Association, and the Glacier Conservancy, which merged the Glacier Association with the Glacier National Park Fund, are examples of such hybrids.
While these hybrid organizations can achieve some efficiencies and funnel greater dollars into the parks, they can also generate problems ranging from intra-staff resentment to comingling of funds raised from the sale of educational and interpretive materials with those to be spent on fundraising projects, the authors note.
Philanthropy and the National Park Service opens an interesting window into the operation of friends groups and their relationships with Park Service managers, and should be required reading for both Park Service managers as well as those who run friends groups and cooperating associations. It also should be readily available to the general public to review before charitable donations are made.
Unfortunately, this book, and its authors, suffer from the lack of a strong editor and from the publishing house's poor design and lofty pricing. Much of it reads like a college dissertation, one with too much anonymity and a lack of voices from both friends groups, the National Park Service, and third-party watchdogs.
For a $25 book, let alone the $100 that this book commands, the layout is atrocious, with block after block after block of text broken too infrequently by sub-heads. That price, unfortunately, also puts it out of reach of the general public.