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Building America’s Legacy: The National Park Foundation

“America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land,”  we sing these songs from childhood that carry new meaning as we grow as a nation. Well beyond the times of westward expansion, we continue to develop our public lands to support our people. As we look to building our legacy as Americans, the National Park Foundation is here to remind us our public lands play an important role in determining our future. Our heritage lands hold priceless natural resources and carry stories that make us who we are today and who we will become, as America — land of the free and the brave. 

Between the Gettysburg Address and the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, setting a uniquely American precedent — our most meaningful and majestic sites were to become places of public refuge for future generations. Not long after Lincoln, President Ulysses S. Grant would sign an act establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872. By 1916, The National Park Service had formed, signed into existence by President Woodrow Wilson. Like much of our history, ordinary citizens stepped up to make sure these public lands would remain dedicated to all Americans for their appreciation and recreation by establishing The National Park Foundation in 1967.

To Preserve Unimpaired for Future Generations

Today, with the help of partners throughout the country like the National Park Friends Alliance, The National Park Foundation is the official charitable non-profit working to support the National Park Service’s mission “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” 

Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park CEO Deb Yandala sits on the steering committee of National Park Friends Alliance, of which she was a prior president. “I can’t say enough good about the National Park Foundation and the role of philanthropy in our national parks.” The National Park Service is part of the federal budget, and it does not increase in correlation with mandates for federal raises. “Philanthropy is critical for the future of national parks. In this time of COVID, when we’ve got other priorities our government is focusing on, we really need people to be generous and support national parks because otherwise, we’re going to see a decrease in quality and accessibility,” Yandala told Garden & Health. “A number of our parks were formed by philanthropy. That’s why friend groups exist, and that’s why the National Park Foundation is so important.” 

Open 24 hours for night adventurers, The Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo courtesy of Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

America’s New Favorite Place

In 2019, our national parks logged nearly 328 million recreational visits, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park all had more than 10 million visits. With all those people comes a whole lot of impact, even when we’re on our best behavior. So along with education and land acquisition support, the National Park Foundation offers multiple programs for sustainability and conservation of resources and wildlife. The Foundation’s Sustainability and Innovation Program is working with NPS to support and sustain the environment by finding ways to reduce water and energy consumption, emissions, and waste. Guided by the NPS’ Green Parks Plan, the National Park Foundation is building a more resilient, sustainable infrastructure within our parks while educating visitors on making eco-friendlier choices.

This extends to wildlife and all biodiverse species that have called this land their home well before humans made their first footprint. Through the National Park Foundation’s Nature & Wildlife Conservation program, the habitat of native wildlife is being restored. These efforts include GPS collaring mountain lions in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and bears in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and tagging California Condors at Pinnacles National Park and Redwood National and State Parks. This biodiversity is also part of our rich heritage and key to maintaining a healthy and responsive ecosystem. 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Boston Mill. Photo: NPS / Victoria Stauffenberg

What Our Parks Say About Us  

While Deb Yandala insists Cuyahoga Valley National Park is her favorite, she’s “enchanted by Glacier National Park. The message around the melting glaciers is something all of us need to pay attention to.” Our national parks carry a message for all of us. It is up to us to contribute to the preservation of these lands. We can do this by showing up, volunteering, donating to our National Parks Foundation, being intentional visitors in the offseason, and taking the road less traveled to give those well-worn trails a break. 

Or, if it’s our first time, we can venture forth with confidence. As Yandala says, “the national parks belong to all of us; this is our land. So every child, every human, every person that comes into the park, this is their own backyard, their own front yard. These public lands belong to all of us. The opportunity to walk the trails and know that those are yours, that’s really special.” 

According to Deb Yandala, the Cuyahoga Valley has a “cool factor” in the national park system as it is both a historic park and a natural park. In the canal era, the Cuyahoga Valley connected commerce from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, with one particularly important canal running from the Ohio River to Lake Erie long considered a pathway for the underground railroad. In 1941, the establishment of Camp Mueller children’s summer camp, operated by the Phillis Wheatley Association, was another historical moment for the park. CVNP holds a rich and storied past, unknown to some Ohioans. Yandala says, “I think it’s important in national parks [to remember], these are nationally significant stories. Sometimes I hear local people say, ‘yeah, but Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t Yosemite or the Rocky Mountains or Glacier.’ And yet to understand that our story is nationally significant, and those stories belong to everybody, that’s really powerful for people when they think about that and accept that. For people to feel connected to the land and feel connected to the past through the stories that are told in national parks, that’s really special. It’s our country’s history, and it belongs to all of us.” 

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