How Does Philanthropy Fit Into the Future of National Parks?

As a $100 million donation establishes a new national monument, and anxiety builds over corporate partnerships, we take a look at the past, future and pitfalls of national parks philanthropy. 

Roxanne Quimby, natural self-care product tycoon and longtime Maine benefactor, finally got her wish, mostly. Her ambition to create a new national park in Maine’s North Woods fell short for now, but following the donation of 87,500 acres and cash worth a combined $100 million, a federal executive order will establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. 

The National Park Service will oversee Katahdin, along with the 412 parks, monuments, and other areas currently under its watch. While a monument is usually smaller than a national park, they also include larger chunks of land. One distinct difference is that a monument only requires a presidential proclamation.

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That’s important in this case, because the creation of the park has been a straight-up brawl in Maine for years, with some area residents seeing it as a federal land grab and a threat to the declining logging industry. Quimby found herself the subject of so much hostility she had to step back and have her son take the lead on the effort. Meanwhile, proponents saw it as a welcome boon to Maine’s tourism economy, as well as another stunning stretch of the state’s mountains, streams, and forests protected for posterity and public use.  

The Katahdin fight has its own unique regional controversies, but the issue of private donors and national parks has been, more broadly, a contentious one. People can certainly be protective of land rights, but they’re also fiercely protective of national parks. 

With environmental philanthropy growing, including massive sums going to prominent city parks, you’d be justified in wondering if private funds are on track to play a larger role in our national park system, and just what that might look like.  

You might even fear our parks being put “up for sale.” That’s precisely the concern that spread when, surrounding a $350 million fundraising campaign timed to its 100th birthday, the NPS announced changes that would invite more philanthropic support and corporate partnerships. That included a pretty modest loosening of rules around donor recognition that could allow temporary naming of renovated facilities, printed materials, or signage. 

The Washington Post published an article with the misleading headline, “Yosemite, sponsored by Starbucks?” Journalists and bloggers who fancy themselves funny (jerks!) competed to come up with the most ridiculous sponsorships.

Aside from the fact that the meme was based on a greatly exaggerated premise, it also revealed our devotion to a perceived purity in NPS funding.  

There are legitimate concerns about donors’ sway over parks, which we’ve covered before and will get into a bit below. And it’s understandable for people to want to view national parks as protected from the influence of industry. 

But while we may not want to see the evidence of it on display, private funds have actually contributed to national parks from day one, and have been integral for decades.

Related:The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

The formation of the system itself involved many large land donations, including the areas that became Muir Woods National Monument and Acadia National Park. Railroad company contributions supported the creation of the NPS. The Rockefeller family played a huge role in funding several parks and monuments over the years, as did the Mellon family. 

More recently, individuals, “friends of” groups, and corporate donors have been instrumental in paying for new facilities and museums on park grounds. The National Park Foundation and fundraising efforts became increasingly active during the 1980s amid Reagan-era disdain for federal spending, and private funds have played a major role in national parks since—although it hasn’t been enough to counter languishing budgets. 

Philanthropy to national parks has coincided with the rise of urban park conservancies following the 1980 founding of the Central Park Conservancy to supplement city budgets. But while national parks have had some big recent donors such as David Rubenstein, giving hasn’t been as dramatic as in cities. New York billionaires have made some truly massive parks gifts, such as John Paulson’s notorious $100 million donation to Central Park, and the surge of private funds that made the High Line possible. Huge parks and trails projects in cities like Tulsa and Houston have also been bankrolled with hundreds of millions coming from private donors.

Related: The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

The fact that we haven’t seen quite the explosion in national parks giving probably has something to do with the fact that big philanthropy does tend to lean toward cities (not to mention the fact that a fancy city park can boost a donor’s real estate holdings). A big gift is also not as likely to have a visible, outsized impact when going to the sprawling national park system.

There’s also a different set of controversies in funding national parks, as seen in Maine. Interesting how in cities, the concern is primarily equity being skewed by private funds, while in the case of Maine, it’s been about government intrusion into rural autonomy. Buying up big chunks of land necessary for a new national park raises a different set of flags than rehabbing an abandoned city parcel.

City park philanthropy and national park philanthropy do share some of the same real concerns, however. 

If you zoom out a little, there is an equity issue in national park funding. People seem far more likely to give to “my national park” than just to “the national parks,” and not every state or region has a Roxanne Quimby to devote millions of dollars and years of time to buying up land, or supporting proper maintenance. It’s a potentially arbitrary way to determine what pieces of land receive proper protection.

While the “brought to you by” threat was overblown, there is a fair concern over outsized influence from a donor that we’ve seen in city parks and that extends to national parks. 

Related:Diller Island: Private Park Funding Gone Overboard

When we reported on Barry Diller’s notorious plan to reshape a New York City pier, a big part of the critique was the unbelievable decision making power the donor was wielding on the park’s features and programming. In Chicago, as pointed out by Beth Gazley at Nonprofit Quarterly, donor Cindy Pritzker was able to handpick the architect and design for Millennium Park’s concert space, and the park was even closed to the public at one point for a donor event.

Corporations have an even bigger tendency to strong-arm public structures. Consider the time when the National Park Service decided to scuttle a planned ban on small plastic water bottles, with internal emails suggesting it was catering to the desires of major donor Coca-Cola. 

That kind of potential influence exerted on places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite horrify the public, and the resulting backlash whenever the NPS has toed the line has made leadership tentative when it comes to such partnerships. Hopefully that caution and public protectiveness will continue. 

But whether we like it or not, fundraising from donors and corporations is a continuing and growing part of our national parks and monuments. 

Related:Can America's National Parks Pull in the Big Private Bucks? 

Like education, or any number of other public expenditures, even though national parks offer tremendous tangible and intangible value to the country, we just don’t want to pay for them. 

One recent study estimated the parks’ value to Americans at $92 billion per year, but NPS only has about a $3 billion budget, regularly receiving smaller allocations than it requests each year despite record attendance. That’s led to a $12 billion maintenance backlog, plus budget cuts over the past 15 years when inflation is factored in. 

Unless the political climate and the role of federal spending changes radically, that picture isn’t getting any rosier. Hence the heightened push for private funds. 

One potential way to leverage philanthropy into more financial stability would be the establishment of an endowment. Parks advocates are fans of the approach, which follows that of many city park conservancies, universities, and cultural institutions that rely heavily on donations. Such a fund would produce annual returns to supplement the budget, providing a buffer and serving as an attraction for more large donors. Legislation to create such an endowment is currently before Congress.

As wealth continues to accumulate and philanthropy grows, it’s safe to say we’re going keep seeing large donations going to national parks, whether in the form of endowment gifts, corporate partnerships, or family campaigns to establish new parks.

We’re currently in an atmosphere where many public institutions are doggedly competing for donors to serve as more integral sources of their budgets. Based on past public funding, parks simply can’t be expected to thrive without keeping up. 

As much as we love the idea of parks paid for and collectively owned by citizens, that’s only part of the national parks story. And at least lately, it’s not a big enough part.