National Parks in the United States: A Public-Private Partnership

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
National Park Service
Public & Private Responsibility
Public Purpose
Roosevelt, Theodore
The National Park Service, founded in 1916, has faithfully cared for the U.S.'s natural, historical and cultural treasures. Although the parks are government-funded, philanthropy has played a major role, from before its official founding and continues to play an even greater one today.

Authored by Andy Baker


The National Parks are overseen and cared for by the National Park Service (NPS), a government-funded agency whose mission is to ‘preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the NPS for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this—and future generations’. More than 275 million people visit the over 400 designated areas maintained by the National Park System within the United States and its territories (National Park Service).

The NPS cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world. The NPS relies on government funding, however its work would not be accomplished without philanthropy—over 400,000 volunteers and thousands of partner organizations raise funds on behalf of and work with the NPS year-round on projects and programs in parks and communities around the nation (National Park Service).

The National Park Service is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and is led by a Director nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The National Park Service’s partner organizations annually garner philanthropic support for projects and programs in parks around the country—from national nonprofit entities like the National Park Foundation, to small, localized Friends groups and cooperating associations (National Park Service).


Historic Roots

While environmental protection and cultural preservation is considered a common and somewhat universally accepted cause by today’s standards, it was a novel concept in the early years of the United States. Many individuals in the 1800s, inspired after their travels throughout the US, started to advocate and lobby for the government to create national parks. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress created a new entity for the specific purpose to care for these special places. This brought 36 national parks, monuments and reservations under one federal agency, The National Park Service (Vaughn and Cortner 2013). The National Park Service was given the responsibility to not only conserve and protect parks, but also to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations (National Park Service).

However, prior to Congress routinely appropriating funds for this purpose, private philanthropy catalyzed the effort. Philanthropy has played a vital role in creating what we recognize today as the national park system. Private donations have been and continue to be responsible for substantial additions to the national park system—from park lands maintenance and land acquisition—to other donations supporting park planning, development management and education experiences (Mackintosh 1998).

Some of the earliest financial support for the national parks came from what might appear on the surface as unlikely allies. In the anticipation of reaping considerable profit from the hordes of travelers eager to see natural park wonders, railroads and automobile interests were some of the greatest proponents of the creation of national parks. Other tourism-oriented organizations gave, while individual philanthropists and the foundations they ran also contributed immensely (Vaughn and Cortner 2013, Mackintosh 1998). Many individuals and families, some from the most storied in American philanthropy, gifted great sums of money and private land to be stewarded by the NPS.

Many organizations have materialized over the years with the sole purpose of providing philanthropic support to parks as well. Congress established the National Park Trust Fund Board in the 1930s, which eventually morphed in 1967 into what is known today as the National Parks Foundation (National Park Foundation). Thousands of ‘partner’ organizations, specifically friends groups and cooperating associations have also offered their time, talent and personal funds to establish and support park operations (National Park Service).



One of the national parks’ great champions, President Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks”. Nearly 100 years later, writer Wallace Stegner famously stated that the National Park System was “the best idea we [the United States] ever had…Absolutely American, absolutely democratic” (Vaughn and Cortner 2013, 1). The National Park System protects, preserves and conserves over 84 million acres of some of America’s greatest national treasures – from natural landscapes to important cultural landmarks.

Over the years, many Americans have developed an incredible fondness—a love affair—with ‘America’s Best Idea’, the parks. This love affair has spawned a movement within communities of partnerships that support the parks on a national and local level.

Today, over 200 Friends groups partner with national parks to carry out diverse projects all around the country—from supporting critical research and restoration projects to raising funds to rehabilitate centuries old structures and build visitor facilities—benefitting parks in numerous ways (National Park Service). As Vaughn and Cortner write, ‘today, many NPS units depend on park-specific…friends groups for fundraising’ (Vaughn and Cortner 2013, 1). In addition to Friends groups, in many national parks nonprofit organizations known as cooperating associations are relied upon to provide volunteer services. However, in contrast to the Friends groups, the volunteer work the cooperating associations focus on are primarily educational, such as operating bookstores, creating promotional materials and leading programming (National Park Service).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector 

The difficulty of defining the role of government and nonprofits in providing for public goods, as many would define the NPS, is no more apparent than in the operation of the national parks themselves. The national parks have long struggled to operate with their annual appropriations that don’t even keep pace with inflation. After several cuts to the federal budget in the 1980s, conservation groups, park enthusiasts and members of the media started to focus on the declining condition of America’s national parks (Vaughn and Cortner 2013; Mackintosh 1998). Today, there’s a well-publicized backlog of needed repairs estimated at $12 billion, while the annual budget hovers around $3 billion – not nearly enough for the park service to accomplish its goals (Editorial Board 2015).

In an effort to alleviate this massive budget shortfall, the National Park Service has increasingly turned to philanthropy. The NPS recently proposed a controversial amendment to its philanthropy policy in early 2015. As the Washington Post editors wrote, “Private donations have played a role, but givers have received little or no recognition. The proposed change would offer temporary naming rights to some park buildings, and the addition of company logos to temporary signage, print materials, exhibits and digital media.” Opponents have argued that it’s an invasion of commercial interests, while backers claim it’s a long-overdue update to the giving policy and the cost of doing business in today’s budget-tightened environment (Washington Post Editorial Board 2015, A16).


Key Related Ideas 

  • Conservation and preservation: Today, both terms are often used interchangeably to describe efforts by individuals and organizations to protect natural and cultural resources. In fact, the National Park Service uses both terms within their mission statement. However, in the early movement of protecting and preserving natural landscapes, there were distinct divides when it came to the meaning of each term; whereas preservation by some was recognized as ‘where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man – man is a visitor who does not remain’, conservation took the form of resource stewardship, recognizing the shared importance of large areas of land for the provision of humans and nature (Meyer 1997, 275).

  • Partnership: The National Park Service has thousands of ‘partner’ organizations they work with annually on projects and programs in parks around the country (National Park Service). The US Department of Interior notes that ‘almost any time that a federal or non-federal entity is working together with the Department, that working relationship may be considered a partnership’ (Vaughn and Cortner 2013, 2).

  • Public good: Today, the national parks are recognized by many to be public goods, although not entirely pure. A pure public good, as defined by Anheier, are goods to which no property rights can be established, that are available to all irrespective of contribution (Anheier 2014, 199).


Important People Related to the Topic 

Stephen Mather (1867-1930) was the National Park System’s first director. He contributed a large portion of his personal funds to support parks. In the System’s inaugural year, Mather convinced several railroad companies to join him in contributing funds to publish the National Park Portfolio, a piece of convincing propaganda promoting the parks. His efforts helped persuade Congress to create the National Park System (Vaughn and Cortner 2013, Mackintosh 1998).

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-0960) and Laurance Rockefeller (1910-2004) Perhaps no name has greater claim as the most generous to national parks than the Rockefellers – namely John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his son Laurance. Their contributions ensured the protection and preservation of remarkable areas and landmarks around the country. Some of the larger and more notable donations were for Acadia (ME), Grand Teton (WY), the U.S. Virgin Islands, Rocky Mountain (CO), and Yosemite (CA) – among many others. Today’s National Park Trust was also launched in 1967 with a $1 Million gift from Laurance (Mackintosh 1998).

The Mellon Family Along with the Rockefellers, the Mellon family has a prolific history of supporting the national parks and their initiatives. Shortly after World War II, through the 1970s, individual Mellon family members and several family foundations gave grants to fund first-of-its-kind surveys of seacoast and Great Lakes shoreline, which lead to the creation of national sea and lakeshores. Paul Mellon helped the State of North Carolina acquire land for the nation’s first park located on shoreline, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, while family foundations, like the Richard King Mellon Foundation, made gifts to preserve four Civil War parks, among many others (Mackintosh 1998, Vaughn and Cortner 2013).

John Muir (1838-1914) John Muir was perhaps the most well-known and vocal conservationist of his time, having even camped with President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1890, in large part due to the activism and lobbying by Muir, Yosemite Valley came under federal protection as Yosemite National Park. In 1907, prominent politician and philanthropist William Kent and his wife donated one of the last stands of old-growth redwood forest in northern California, and named it Muir Woods National Monument, in honor of John Muir’s trailblazing conservation efforts (Mackintosh 1998, National Park Foundation).

Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919) Often referred to as the ‘conservationist president’, Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, is widely remembered for his efforts to protect and preserve US natural landscapes. During his time in office, Roosevelt oversaw the creation of five national parks (doubling the number at the time), and signed the landmark Antiquities Act. He leveraged the Act to create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon (The National Parks: America’s Best Idea 2009).

Over 230 million acres of publicly protected land are attributed to Roosevelt’s leadership, some of which memorialize him. According to the National Park Service, there are more National Park Service units dedicated to Roosevelt's life and memory than any other American, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota, where he shot his first buffalo and set up a ranch (The National Park Service).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The National Park Foundation is the official charity of America’s National Parks and nonprofit partner to the National Park Service. Congress chartered the Foundation in 1967, whose mission is to directly support the national parks by raising private funds to help protect, preserve and conserve more than 84 million acres of national park property. (

  • The National Parks Conservation Association is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization that advocates for the protection and strengthening of national parks, through policy design and various lobbying efforts. (

  • The National Park Trust is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving parks and ensuring the next generation becomes enthusiastic stewards. The nation’s only organization dedicated to identifying key land acquisition and preservation projects, as well as connecting kids to each and every park. (


Reflection Question - Why does the government manage the National Park System? Should it?



  • Anheier, Helmut K. Nonprofit Organizations – Theory, Management, Policy. New York: Routledge, 2014
  • Barnum, Jeremy. “National Park Service to Enhance Philanthropic and Partnership Efforts,” National Park Service.
  • Department of the Interior. “Our Priorities”.
  • Mackintosh, Barry. “Philanthropy and National Parks” National Park System 1998
  • Meyer, John M. "Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and the Boundaries of Politics in American Thought." Polity 30, 1997: 267-284. In JSTOR. Available from IUPUI University Library.
  • ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.’ Dir. Ken Burns. Florentine Films, 2009.
  • National Park Foundation, “About the Foundation.”
  • The Public Broadcasting Service. “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
  • Vaughn, Jacqueline and Hanna J. Cortner. Philanthropy and the National Park Service. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1987
  • Washington Post Editorial Board. “Managing Philanthropy at the National Parks”. The Washington Post,

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.