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August 27, 2020

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a sprawling 33,000-acre park in northeastern Ohio. Its diverse resources range from waterfalls and winding trails to historic structures such farmhouses and covered bridges. The park works closely with numerous partner groups that help to operate a railroad, preserve the stories of the canal, and connect people to local and sustainable food.

I recently had the pleasure of learning about one of the park’s incredibly engaged partners, The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park (the Conservancy). Deb Yandala serves as the CEO for the Conservancy and was kind enough to take some time to fill me in on all of the Conservancy’s remarkable efforts to support the park, visitors, and local community.

In the late 1960s, the National Park Service (NPS) wanted to establish urban parks closer to cities that had experienced unrest; and several national recreation areas were formed as a result of this push. In the Cleveland, Ohio, area, there was interest from local Congressional leaders and citizens in protecting land for a park. Cuyahoga Valley National Park was established in 1974 to “preserve and protect for public use and enjoyment the historic, scenic, natural, and recreational values of the Cuyahoga River Valley, to maintain the open space necessary for the urban environment, and to provide for the recreational and educational needs of the visiting public.”

Following the park’s founding, a group of citizens interested in land protection stayed engaged as a Friends Group, eventually forming the Conservancy. Their mission? To enrich people’s lives and enhance the region by inspiring use, preservation, and support of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Deb says that in the last thirty years, the Conservancy has grown from an all-volunteer group to a six-million-dollar organization with over 80 employees, working in the areas of education, event management, volunteer management, retail, marketing and fundraising.

Deb, who has an academic and professional background in environmental education, joined the organization in 1992 as a part time contractor writing curriculum for the soon-to-open residential education center. She went on to became director of the education center and, in 2002, became CEO of the Conservancy.

The Conservancy today has multiple formal agreements with the park. They are the park’s official Friends Group thanks to a philanthropic agreement between the two organizations. And the Conservancy is also a cooperating association for one retail store within the park (they also have two other stores that sit outside the park’s boundaries). The Conservancy also leases buildings from the NPS and has other cooperative agreements to manage the education center and the volunteer program.

There are scores of projects that could be addressed but the Conservancy is careful to select projects that are not only priorities for the national park but have community support as well. These include education programs, especially for children from urban school districts, trail projects, and cultural arts programs.

Last year, the Conservancy completed their biggest project yet; a $7 million renovation of an historic building to become the park’s first centralized visitor center. “The new Boston Mill Visitor Center was a ten-year project, from conception to reality,” says Deb. “We worked very closely with National Park Service staff and had a solid team in obtaining the property – which was privately owned – and in planning, design, construction management, community input, and dedication of the facility.” The Conservancy worked with foundations, individuals, and corporations to raise the $7 million needed to create the beautiful sense of place at the visitor center, which allows them to feature the diverse stories of people in their region.

Like many organizations, the past few months have presented a unique set of challenges. The Conservancy’s education center is currently closed and their income from events has dropped significantly, which means they’ve had to downsize their organization.

However, Deb still sees the silver lining in the challenges caused by the pandemic. “This is giving us a chance to reinvent ourselves with more focus on park projects, on creating an inclusive organizational culture, and in working with our surrounding region on issues related to equity and access to green space.”

As a park located between two large urban cities, the Conservancy is highly committed to helping ensure that Cuyahoga Valley National Park engages a diversity of people. Deb says the Conservancy has a group of board members and staff working specifically on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are revamping hiring practices, choosing diverse vendors, changing their programming, evaluating marketing practices, and partnering with grassroots Black and Brown led organizations. “Many people are discovering our park for the first time and we welcome them,” she says.

New members are welcome to join the Conservancy, and the group has created many different ways for supporters to give of their resources or their talents. To find out more about their organization or to join and support the Conservancy, visit: