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March 2, 2020

This week’s post in our Focus on Friends series gives us a broad perspective on the support that organizations can provide national parks. We reached out to the National Park Trust (NPT) after reading about their incredible success at Valles Caldera National Preserve. As you may have seen in a recent Weekly Report, NPT helped to acquire the last privately owned parcel inside the park’s boundaries, “completing” the park and marking the end of an 11 year-long effort by the National Park Service (NPS).

And remember Buddy the Bison? Well, he’s the result of a Park Trust program! In 2009, they began developing this program to reach youth in Title I schools. The program’s core principle is to give youth the tools and knowledge with which to enjoy and become future stewards of green spaces.

We had to learn more. Luckily for us, Phil Selleck, a 30-year NPS veteran and the Park Project Director at National Park Trust, was happy to answer our questions. Phil spent 25 years as a law enforcement park ranger and retired as associate regional director for park operations in the National Capital Region of the NPS. After he retired, Phil was looking for a way to continue his work with national parks. He learned about Park Trust through a former NPS supervisor, who is also a member of the non-profit’s board of trustees.

 The mission of the National Park Trust is to preserve parks today and create park stewards for tomorrow. It’s a comprehensive conservation mission, one that includes acquiring lands for units of the National Park System now that are important for the protection and preservation of the parks and their natural, cultural and archeological resources; and building a pipeline of future diverse environmental stewards by engaging youth with our parks and public lands and waters through first-time educational park experiences that focus on STEM, history, and outdoor recreation.

National Park Trust was formed in 1983; their first project was the acquisition of 5 acres at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. They are a nonprofit corporation with an umbrella agreement (MOU) with the NPS at the national level. The Park Trust utilizes cooperative agreements or memoranda of understanding with individual parks or regions as circumstances dictate.

Their team tackles lands projects of any size where they can contribute funding, expertise and legal skills, or a combination of both. These are typically projects that have been vetted and prioritized by the NPS. “We are very pleased with our track record of being nimble and creative in addressing complex projects,” says Phil. “We often come up with a solution when the park is ‘stuck’, but the need for a solution is great.”

Since its inception, donors have helped National Park Trust to protect over 26,000 acres of important ecological and cultural resources. When asked about a recent success, Phil mentions Valles Caldera.

“In fall of 2019, the NPS approached us and asked if we could help them acquire the last private inholding at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. The land contained a collection of geothermal features that were found only in two other parks in the system; Yellowstone and Lassen Volcanic National Parks. The property, if acquired, would become a centerpiece in the park’s research and interpretive programs. The owner wanted to sell at a price above the federally approved appraised value, so we agreed to help span the funding gap. We were able, in a short time, to obtain funding from three foundations, board members and individual donors to make the purchase by NPS possible. There was a sense of urgency with this project because of the landowners’ desire to sell the parcel by the end of 2019.” You can read more about this here.

We also asked Phil about some of the challenges facing the Park Trust. He mentions that recently, some of the most experienced NPS lands officers have reached retirement age and left the agency. The departure of their institutional knowledge, coupled with the long timeframe for filling vacancies, can slow or stop an ongoing project. “This limits when and where we can work,” he says.

In addition, the Trust’s ability to assist NPS is limited by the amount of funds on hand. While the Land and Water Conservation Fund can provide a path to land acquisition, there are many more projects that require private funding. “We are always seeking new philanthropic donations which will mean more land for parks.”

 Phil recommends that those interested in getting involved with a Friends group or other park-supporting organization do some preliminary research first. “Look at their vision and mission statements to see if they mesh with your outlook. Services like Guidestar or Charity Watch will allow you to review the financial records of an organization. If you know someone involved with the group, check-in with them. Try to determine how much of what they raise for funds goes into projects and how much goes into supporting the organization.”

As for National Park Trust? They are proud to report platinum status with Guidestar, an A rating with Charity Watch, and that 85% of their resources are used directly for land and youth programs as determined by their annual independent audit. You can find more information about them in their annual report.

If you’re interested in supporting National Park Trust, consider making a gift now, or including them in your estate plans. They are also always on the lookout for strong board member candidates, especially those from diverse backgrounds as they work to make their mission relevant to everyone. They also welcome volunteers and they do hire paid staff and interns when there are vacancies. To learn more about National Park Trust, please visit their website.