An Important Step Forward for Our National Parks

2016 is a pretty big year for the National Park Service, its centennial anniversary, and with it comes many moments to celebrate. In February, at the Lincoln Memorial, the National Park Foundation launched our Centennial Campaign for America's National Parks, a $350 million philanthropic campaign to support our national parks. While at the Lincoln Memorial, we were also proud to accept an $18.5 million contribution from David Rubenstein to restore the iconic site. This week, I am excited to see the momentum of support for America's national parks continue through the introduction of important legislation that would bolster the National Park System for generations to come.

The National Park Service Centennial provides a great opportunity for Congress to come together and explore a new, more holistic funding approach for national parks. Such an approach is reflected in the legislation, introduced by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT). Chairman Bishop's National Park Service Centennial Act includes provisions to increase funding for the Centennial Challenge program, establish an endowment at the National Park Foundation, and authorize annual appropriations for the National Park Foundation.

The Centennial Challenge program, which requires a $1: $1 private to federal match, has a proven track record. This year Congress appropriated $15 million to the National Park Service for the program which has been matched with an additional $33 million by the National Park Foundation, Friends Groups, and other partners. This $48 million partnership will result in 69 new projects to be completed in national parks in 2016. A list of projects can be found here. That's an impressive rate of return for taxpayers' investment and a practice worth repeating.

The National Park Service Centennial Act would fund an expansion of the Centennial Challenge by raising the price of the lifetime "Senior Pass". The increased (and more consistent) funding will allow partners to leverage private contributions even more. The legislation would also introduce an annual "Senior Pass" for those that didn't want to purchase a lifetime pass.

The legislation also establishes an endowment, to be housed at and managed by the National Park Foundation, that would ensure long-term support for our national parks. As the non-partisan, Congressionally-chartered, nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, the Foundation is perfectly suited for this role. With an endowment, the Foundation can build a lasting source of funding that will appeal to philanthropists, especially members of the baby boomer generation, who will be undertaking the largest transfer of wealth in American history. An endowment in support of our national parks is an attractive destination for some of that money.

This legislation provides seed money for the endowment through overnight fees at lodges. These are the same fees that we currently pay in hotels across the country and the legislation would reinvest the money in the parks to fund key programs and projects, improve visitor experience, and leverage more philanthropic dollars.

Chairman Bishop's National Park Service Centennial Act also authorizes annual appropriations for the National Park Foundation in the amount of $25 million per year. These funds would have to be matched with private funds and would provide the Foundation with an opportunity to secure philanthropic dollars from a broad diversity of individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Our National Park System already serves as an economic engine in communities across the country, with every tax dollar invested in the National Park Service returning another $10 to the U.S. economy. Matching annual appropriations is yet another way that taxpayer dollars can be leveraged for greater investment.

When I'm on the road talking with donors and potential donors, one of the most frequent questions I'm asked is "Does the federal government have skin in the game?" That's why the National Park Service Centennial Act is so important. It commits the federal government to supporting our national parks and requires organizations like the Foundation, local Friends Groups and other partners, to raise the matching funds to secure those dollars.

Annual appropriations are and should remain the largest source of funding for parks. Our national parks belong to all of us, and we share a responsibility to maintain them. Philanthropic dollars can help achieve the margin of excellence for our parks and this legislation will make that possible.

An innovative and holistic funding model for our parks includes appropriations, fees, corporate partnerships, volunteers, and philanthropic dollars. We're already seeing the increased enthusiasm for philanthropy for our national parks. The National Park Service Centennial Act will help that grow.

The introduction of Chairman Bishop's National Park Service Centennial Act follows on the heels of legislation introduced last year by House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). Also called the National Park Service Centennial Act, Ranking Member Grijalva's legislation includes similar components of Chairman Bishop's bill.

We are grateful for the work and leadership of Chairman Bishop and Ranking Member Grijalva on these efforts. We look forward to working with both of them and the House Natural Resources Committee to coalesce around a bipartisan bill and pass this important legislation.