Nonprofits and Thousands of Volunteers to the Rescue of State Parks


BigRiver” by David EppsteinOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

August 10, 2015; Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing public-private partnership, where private nonprofits have stepped into the void left by shrinking state parks agencies across the U.S.

It highlights California’s parks system, which has a $1.2 billion maintenance backlog. Many of its parks are being maintained thanks to the work of conservation groups, which are rebuilding trails, renovating restrooms, and buying more land. The state parks department has outsourced much of its maintenance and repairs to nonprofits.

The nonprofit California State Parks Foundation has had over 3,000 volunteers working nearly 24,000 hours to clean up facilities around the state over the past four years. For example, in remote Mendocino County north of San Francisco, two local nonprofits recently paid for half of the $160,000 cost of rebuilding a day-use area at a start park with old-growth redwoods.

Similar public-private partnerships have formed in Florida and Pennsylvania. The Journal reports that in Florida, volunteer hours contributed to state parks in 2014 were up by a third over what they were in 2008. Meanwhile, full-time park staffing remained the same, according to the Friends of Florida State Parks. Volunteers in the Pennsylvania’s park system quadrupled in 2014 from six years earlier, according to the Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation, after significant cuts by the state parks department in the wake of the Great Recession.

Volunteers are also helping out at municipal parks across the U.S. New York’s Central Park Conservancy provides 75 percent of the park’s $65 million annual operating budget. Park officials consider these contributions invaluable; in many cases, these efforts not only preserve and protect open space, but boost local economies by keeping tourist attractions open.

Some people say that the growing role of nonprofits in parks is concerning. One group in Washington State tells the Journal that using donations for parkland acquisition “makes no sense when many states can’t maintain current facilities.”

Conservationists point out that this all underscores the importance of more reliable park funding—“general-fund monies for state parks has been cut nationally, forcing agencies to reduce costs by limiting hours and, in some cases closing facilities,” says the article, quoting a recent study.

The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, says that nonprofits are only a temporary fix for financing park operations. Between 2008 and 2010, 80 percent of California’s state parks were threatened with closure—that’s what prompting the California State Parks Foundation to create a grant program to help keep them open. And the Save the Redwoods League has accumulated about 1,600 acres of land it plans to turn over to the state, while expanding into park maintenance.—Larry Kaplan

  • DC

    These public private partnerships are not desirable. There’s a reason that our state and federal coffers are bare and not able to handle the costs. And quite frankly I’m jaded enough to know that the nonprofits benefit from the states and feds not having enough funding to handle public projects. This is corruption, and it is not acceptable. The parks belong to the people not private nonprofits. This is wrong.

  • How long is it sustainable to get all this work done by unpaid people? Volunteer engagement in this case isn’t about building community or engaging under-served populations or building awareness – it’s about having an unpaid labor force to get the work done. I’m very grateful that volunteers are, in many cases, keeping parks open – I’m a frequent state park user – but this should be a very temporary solution, not a long-term fix.