The Interior Department's New Best Friend: American Express

Welcome to the age of shrinking government and rising philanthropy. One day the White House is asking top funders to help sign people up for healthcare coverage; the next, it's begging foundations to shoulder more of the burden of paying for scientific research. And in city after city, education officials have their hats out to private funders. 

Then there's this recent news: Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell has announced that the American Express Foundation has committed to donating $5 million over the next three years to boost volunteerism on public lands. And while this isn't exactly evidence that plutocracy lies around the corner, and philanthropy is helping escort us there, it's another telling indicator of how government looks to private money to get things done. 

Related: Familiar Lesson of Science Give: Government Looks to Philanthropy to Get Stuff Done

The DOI is the caretaker of 20 percent of U.S. territory, including national parks, forests wildlife refuges, and other public lands. The DOI hosted an estimated 407 million recreation visits in 2013, which contributed $41 billion to the economy and supported about 355,000 jobs nationwide. Thousands of volunteers already act as docents, guides, trail builders and more, but in an era of budget austerity in Washington D.C., their help is more vital than ever before.

This partnership backs Secretary Jewell’s pledge to increase the number of volunteers from 322,000 to one million per annum by 2017. “Magnificent landscapes and our strong volunteer ethic are part of what makes America so special and unique,” Secretary Jewell said. “This partnership with American Express will be a huge boost as we create a movement to foster the next generation of leaders and outdoor stewards while helping people connect to the public lands in their community – particularly in urban areas.”

The grant extends beyond traditional wilderness areas. In partnership with YMCA of the USA, the donation will fund community coordinator positions in 50 U.S. cities to deploy volunteers to staff local parks controlled not only by the DOI such as Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, but city and state parks as well. The plan is to engage tens of thousands of volunteers, beginning in New York expanding to 25 cities by the end of 2015 with the additional 25 cities covered during 2016.

The most intriguing part of the program is that it will also fund the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the New Deal that helped pull America out of the Great Depression. Today’s corps will offer a mix of volunteer and paid positions for young people, teachers and veterans. Its stated mission is “to work protecting, restoring, and enhancing America’s great outdoors,” in a cost-effective manner.

“Community service and historic preservation have had a long heritage at American Express,” said Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation. “American Express has seen how America’s parks and public lands contribute to our sense of national and local identity. We are proud to lead an effort to mobilize a new generation of volunteers to protect, conserve and revitalize America’s public lands and treasured national parks.”

Sounds good, but we're betting that FDR is rolling in his grave.