Collaboration and Civic Engagement in National Parks

Last week, we caught up with Assistant Professor David Suárez. He has been working on a project entitled “Collaboration and Civic Engagement in National Parks.”  Today, we’ll take a look at some of his findings and possible impacts.

What are your main findings?

 My research demonstrates that nonprofits can have a dramatic, positive effect in national parks. They can fund-raise  build a membership base, help national parks to run and manage volunteer programs, and develop earned income through projects that national parks view as ancillary or secondary to their main mandate. Under certain circumstances, nonprofits also can raise funds for projects that almost certainly would never be supported with a line item for the National Park Service. The main nonprofit partner in the GGNRA, called the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has been pivotal to the success of the GGNRA in the last few decades. A particularly useful example is the restoration and preservation of Crissy Field, a 100-acre section of the park that had been part of the Presidio, a military post.

The restoration project cost $36 million dollars, far too expensive for the GGNRA to undertake on its own. Because the Conservancy had developed a solid reputation, they succeeded in establishing a case for the project in the community. From the initial discussions of the Crissy Field project to the present day, civic engagement has been a common thread, serving to encourage environmental stewardship, stakeholder commitment to national parks, and community planning.

Once the project moved from the planning phase to the implementation phase, a private firm with representation on the board of the Conservancy designed a clever campaign called “Help Grow Crissy Field,” and marketing materials used an image of a child “growing” Crissy Field by planting a tree at the site. Advertisements for the campaign were disseminated by direct mail, billboards, banners, and even on buses. Furthermore, the campaign produced materials in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and bilingual staff coordinated many of the volunteer activities.

In all, more than 3,000 volunteers helped to reintroduce 100,000 plants from 73 native species to the area. Though the restoration is the signature accomplishment of the partnership, the Conservancy has done much more since it was established in 1981. According to the website for the Conservancy, over the course of its history the nonprofit has raised more than $243 million in park support, grown more than 1.5 million native plants and worked on 11 different restoration sites, and expanded membership to more than 12,000 people. These achievements did not occur suddenly or immediately, but they demonstrate just how significant collaboration can be.

What impact do you hope this project will have?

 The National Park Service (NPS) has very reasonable and legitimate concerns about giving nonprofits too much freedom to operate within the boundaries of any unit of the park system. National Parks have been described as “America’s Best Idea,” and the National Park Service wants to insure that the areas they are entrusted to manage remain protected for future generations to enjoy. The National Park Service also has equally legitimate concerns about privatization and the future of national parks in the United States, fearing that too large a role for nonprofits will lead to the view that national parks can survive with diminished public support. The Conservancy can pursue earned income as well as donations and memberships. Incorporating all of these functions has enabled the organization to undertake and complete a variety of projects. I am hopeful that my research will clarify the opportunities and limits of collaboration with nonprofits in national parks. Clearly not every unit of the national park system will be able to achieve what the Conservancy has been able to achieve. Perhaps more importantly, some nonprofits might try to achieve similar outcomes and fail.

In my opinion, a major key to avoiding potential pitfalls of working with a nonprofit partner is to develop trust and long-term ties, building capacity and leveraging the strengths of both organizations over time.

I hope that my research expands the discussion on the role of nonprofits in national parks, leading to a dialogue that recognizes the utility of collaborative public management. Nonprofits do not have the resources to manage national parks, and I am optimistic that my research will not fuel debates about privatization. Nonprofits are useful for their added value, not as replacements for the National Park Service. The challenge is to develop a thoughtful discussion about a role for nonprofits without undermining the National Park Service or the expertise of its staff. I also hope that my research contributes to new discussions on the role of institutional context. National parks differ a great deal from other public agencies, and as a result the nature of partnerships varies as well. Most obviously, public agencies usually provide funds for nonprofits to implement programs through grants and contracts. In national parks the nonprofit raises funds directly for the park. How this distinction alters the nature of ties requires further study, meriting comparative research on cross-sector relationships.

Suarez gave a presentation on his early findings in May of 2012, view the presentation here: