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The Role of Partnerships in the National Park System



Recently the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on The Role of Partnerships in National Park.

It heard from Donna Asbury, executive director of the Association of Partners for Public Lands, an organization of non-profit cooperating groups that run bookstores in visitor centers, publish materials related to a specific park, and help finance projects that are not funded by the federal government.

APPL members are non-profit organizations with both IRS nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and written agreements with one or more public lands agencies. These nonprofit partners enable the National Park Service to accomplish what they cannot do alone, by engaging the American public in philanthropy and volunteerism and helping to protect, enhance, and interpret park resources. Ms. Asbury pointed out that, in many cases, the people who work for cooperating institutions are the front-line ambassadors to the public - they're the people that visitors see first.

Examples include Alaska Geographic, which supports national parks in Alaska, Eastern National, which operates the bookstores on the Blue Ridge Parkway and most small parks east of the Mississippi, The Great Smoky Mountains Association in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Grand Teton Association in Grand Teton National Park.

An APPL member says that, “While it is the big projects that get the attention, the sustaining value is the postcard or $3 trail guide purchaser, or the thousands of donors who give modestly. These purchased memories, and the opportunity to give, become the building blocks, the glue that binds the public to the national parks.”

Another offers that, “We are very fortunate that our offices are under the same roof as the park administration, enabling us to confer daily on big picture issues as well as details.”

The following are just a few examples of the variety and impact of these partnerships:

* Alaska Geographic works with the National Park Service and a concessionaire to distribute a tour booklet program developed collaboratively and provided by the concessionaire to all of its tour participants. Revenue from this initiative supports educational programming at Murie Science Center at Denali National Park and Preserve as well as throughout the parks of Alaska.

* Pacific Historic Parks has raised nearly all of the significant funding for the new Pearl Harbor Museum and Visitor Center in the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Phase I of the project opened this past February 17 and dedication of the completed project is scheduled for December 7. The completion and success of this project will ensure that millions of visitors each year will better understand the history of Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, and World War II, as well as appreciate the sacrifices made by many at Pearl Harbor.

* Friends of Big Bend raised more than $250,000 for the educational exhibits on the walls of the newly re-opened Panther Junction Visitor Center in the park. Other support to the park includes a $10,000 project to lay the foundation for future Big Bend National Park podcasts and other multimedia video materials.

* Sequoia Natural History Association works with the National Park Service to educate the public about environmental issues, not just through interpretive programs and materials, but also through their own actions. Two years ago, SNHA began eliminating plastic bags in visitor center stores, asking visitors to hand carry small purchases or consider buying an inexpensive reusable bag. This effort has taken an estimated 50,000 plastic bags out of the waste stream annually. Last year the association partnered with NPS to obtain grants and donations to make Crystal Cave interpretive tours, operated by SNHA in Sequoia, the first cave tour operation to be operated 100% on solar power. Through interpretive signage, this project is also a visible message to the 55,000 annual cave visitors.

In most cases, cooperating associations and friends groups were formed to support a specific park or a group of parks. Therefore, they view their organizations as existing to benefit the park, not the other way around. As one association executive director put it, “the only benefit is seeing projects and programs funded for the protection of the resource and the enjoyment of the visitor.” National park partners agree that projects are driven by park priorities and needs.

"Americans have always treated their public lands generously," said Ms. Asbury. "We believe that caring for our national parks is a shared responsibility. The job is big and resources are limited. As more and more Americans turn to national parks for their recreation and green space, as more and more schools seek laboratories for learning, as communities and citizens look for volunteer and economic opportunities, nonprofit partnerships grow increasingly necessary."


At the same hearing, Daniel N. Wenk, the Park Service's deputy director, also gave a statement on the importance of partnership efforts within the National Park Service.

"While all taxpayers contribute to the parks, those who make additional voluntary contributions will have a special interest in their welfare. The parks and the National Park Service benefit from their devotion as well as their dollars," said Mr. Wenk.

His testimony focused on several areas including construction of buildings in national parks. For example, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is funded by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Friends of the Smokies is paying for the exhibits and furnishings of the building.

Mr. Wenk emphasized the work being done with partners to engage new and younger audiences. A primary goal – and need – of the NPS is to make national parks relevant to all Americans, he said.

Young people participating in the Public Lands Corps and Youth Conservation Corps work with park staff to complete a variety of summer natural and cultural resource conservation projects. Their work experience includes the chance to explore career opportunities that have an emphasis on park and natural resource stewardship.

Paid internships in the field of interpretation and visitor services are offered during the summer to graduating high school seniors and freshman and sophomore college students in partnership with a host of non-profit youth organizations. Work experience gained through internships provides avenues for students to qualify for summer seasonal employment as GS-04 Park Rangers.

The Let’s Move Outside Junior Ranger program encourages young people to enjoy the outdoors and be active and healthy. Park rangers provide programs, workbooks, and incentives to pursue a Junior Ranger badge. Young people who complete at least one physical activity in pursuit of their Junior Ranger badge receive a special sticker that designates them as a “Let’s Move Outside” Junior Ranger. It is a great way to learn and have fun in a park.

Mr. Wenk mentioned a few youth programs and partnerships in specific parks to make national parks more accessible and meaningful to the younger generation, to new Americans, and to people who have rarely, if ever, experienced a National Park:

* Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is partnering with non-profit and government agencies in youth employment, education and service-learning, volunteerism, and urban outreach. The park collaborates with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and more than 30 education partners and public school districts in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, to provide programs that engage approximately 50,000 urban youth annually with quality outdoor learning experiences. These programs help connect young people in cities to the outdoors and to principles of stewardship, while promoting civic responsibility and appreciation of our national heritage.

* The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy’s I-YEL (Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders) Program is initiated, designed, and coordinated by young people, who receive support and training in planning and implementing projects that create positive change in their communities. Participants teach drop-in programs at the park’s environmental center, conduct outreach activities in communities, attend conferences, or create their own community service project.

* Also at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Linking Individuals to the Natural Community Summer High School Program allows high school students to join a team that works on outdoor service-learning projects throughout the park, including trail work, plant propagation, and habitat restoration. Students attend leadership workshops and take field trips to special park sites like Alcatraz and Muir Woods, and participate in a four-day camping and service trip to Yosemite.

* The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a partnership of the Lowell National Historical Park and the University of Massachusetts’ Graduate School of Education, providing heritage education programs for 50,000 school children per year. The park provides the center physical space in its Boott Cotton Mills Museum building and the university takes the lead in grant-writing and fundraising to fund the exhibits. Both partners work jointly on curriculum, outreach, and teaching. This effort won a National Parks Foundation Partnership Award as a model for effective heritage education.

"Partnerships like these are making a difference. They enable the National Park Service to engage, as never before, hundreds of thousands of young people and new Americans," said Mr. Wenk. "Our partners are contributing not only funding for these programs, but their valuable time, energy, and commitment to youth education, recreation, and park stewardship."

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Thank you for sharing this information. The cooperating associations indeed make a very positive and significant impact on the national parks and visitors they serve.

Another, perhaps less well know to the public, nationwide program is the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units or CESU. The CESU is a consortium of and collaboration between and among Federal (13 agencies/bureaus) and non-Federal partners (around 300) that is facilitated by cooperative agreements between the two entities. The CESU program allows agencies to increase their scientific capacity by being able to tap into expertise in the non-profit private sector through partnerships with colleges, universities and non-profit organizations. At the same time, these collaborations provide partners with access to both Federal funding resources and agency resources, for example, natural and cultural resources that can be used as "living laboratories". A more detailed description of this nationwide network can be found at Descriptions of the amazing collaborative work being done between Federal agencies and the numerous partners can be found at the individual websites for each of the 17 CESU's comprising the entire CESU Network.

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