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

It's been a big year so far for America's National Parks.

In case you missed it, in February, the country's official national park charity, the National Park Foundation, publicly launched a $350 million initiative in honor of its centennial.

The centennial, you say? Yup. While America's first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872, the National Park Service wasn't created until 1916. Now in its 100th year, it continues to preserve national parks in the U.S. while educating and engaging the public on a number of initiatives promoting conservation, outdoor recreation, etc.

And while both the parks and the NPS are government operations, there is a long history of private philanthropy toward bolstering a park system that has often been called "America's best idea." But this fundraising campaign, the Centennial Campaign for America's National Parks, is the biggest push yet to raise money for national parks — and it comes at a moment that federal budget cuts have taken a toll on park maintenance and staff morale.

The launch was announced at the Lincoln Memorial with a donation of $18.5 million from David Rubenstein toward the refurbishing of that site. Rubenstein has donated to national parks in the past. Co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, Rubenstein began donating in 2012 and has given a total of four times, with gifts that include $7.5 million for Washington Monument's post-earthquake restoration, $12.35 million for the restoration of both Arlington House and the Robert E. Lee Memorial, and $5.37 million toward refurbishing the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

The Centennial Campaign for America's National Parks has already raised over $200 million from various individuals, corporations, and charitable foundations through what they have deemed their "quiet phase." This phase of the fundraising began back in October 2013, and with the official public announcement of the campaign, it plans to run all the way through September 2018.

In fact, the National Park Foundation has jumped on the centennial, not only as a means of fundraising for America's National Parks, but also as a motivation to ask Congress to invest in parks across the country, proposing legislation called the National Park Service Centennial Act.

Several donors we track are involved with the National Park Foundation, apart from David Rubenstein. Roxanne Quimby, the Maine conservation philanthropist, is on the board of the foundation, as is finance guy Peter Knight and Bryan Taubert, who leads the Pritzker Traubert Foundation with his wife Penny Pritzker. A long list of other donors appears in the foundation's most recent annual report. It will be interesting to see how many of them increase their giving to help achieve the goals of the Centennial Campaign.

Of course, the National Park Foundation is the not the only nonprofit advocating for the parks. Another is the National Parks Conservation Assocation, which has a broader mission.

Overall, though, it's worth noting how few truly major gifts have gone toward national parks over the years. While we've seen big money for urban parks recently, such as a $100 million gift for the Central Park Conservancy, money at that scale is rare in this space. Maybe that will change as the federal government faces ongoing fiscal austerity.

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