By Elizabeth Cernota Clark
Scenic America is captured and preserved in countless photo albums, diaries and videos chronicling road trips, mountain hikes and personal retreats to the wilderness protected by the National Park System.
For almost 40 years, memories like those have been quietly nurtured by the National Park Foundation, the sole philanthropic partner of the National Park Service.
Chartered by Congress in 1967, the foundation oversees a legacy of private support that began even before Congress created the National Park Service in 1916.
Combined, the foundation and groups of local park friends together contribute about $100 million a year to augment the national parks’ $2 billion annual federal budget appropriation.
Those funds come from the foundation’s more than 300 endowment funds, which support projects and activities across the National Park System in keys areas like science, education, volunteerism, transportation and restoration.
But like water and clean air, the national parks often are taken for granted, says Vin Cipolla, president and CEO of the foundation.
“Park philanthropy isn’t terribly well-known or understood, so we have a big communication challenge in a very competitive philanthropic environment,” he says. “There are more needs than ever and more use than ever [of the parks].”
Unlike some congressionally-chartered foundations, such as the National Forest Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Park Foundation does not receive federal money for operations.
“Every dollar we have, we raise,” says Jamie Patten, vice president for communications.
Cipolla says the foundation uses the money it raises primarily to educate the public and to develop new parks and additional park components.
The education component includes projects like Junior Rangers, which educates youth, and the African-American Experience Fund, which supports development and program activities of 20 national parks with key African-American historic sites.
Today, getting more Americans involved in their parks is the foundation’s greatest challenge, says Cipolla.
Historically, Americans have been closely involved in park philanthropy and volunteerism.
Corporations, foundations and private individuals have been among the heavy lifters behind the scenes of some of the nation’s most magnificent vistas and historic sites.
In the late 1800s, for example, a movement by private citizens to preserve the great landscapes of the West led to Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, says Patten.
Today, with an estimated 280 million visits annually, the 390 national parks across 49 states rely on volunteer efforts to help maintain them.
In 2005, 137,000 volunteers donated 5.2 million hours of service to the national parks, says the National Park Service.
Valued at $91.2 million, those figures have grown since 2001, when volunteers contributed 4.4 million hours.
But the needs are growing, Cipolla says, and the foundation now is hoping to build enthusiasm and support for the parks through projects targeted to children and young adults.
In April, during National Park Week, 37 million people participated in an online field trip to the Carlsbad Caverns, a presentation in cooperation with Ball State University.
This February, the destination will be Manzanar, a California site that was part of a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
And an annual photo contest and the new “Parks” magazine, which debuted this November and is targeted toward donors, are among the foundation’s most recent outreach efforts.
The goal is “to strengthen the enduring connection between the American people and their parks,” says Patten. “That’s our mission.”