Donors fill funds gap

For the past five years, hundreds of workers with mules, chainsaws and shovels have built new wooden footbridges on Yosemite National Park’s backcountry hiking trails. They have rerouted popular paths to protect the roots of ancient sequoias in the park’s Mariposa Grove. And they have installed new signs, stone walls and rock staircases across the famed John Muir Trail.

The $13.5 million job, which was completed this month, is the largest trail restoration project in Yosemite’s history. But most of the funding didn’t come from taxpayers; $10.5 million was paid for with private donations.

In an era when federal and state budgets are stretched to the breaking point, donations are increasingly the lifelines in the maintenance of some of America’s most popular natural treasures.

“Trails in Yosemite are the way people get to really enjoy the park, whether they are in the front country or backcountry wilderness,” said Mike Tollefson, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that funded the trail project. “The park service had gotten behind in maintaining those trails. We felt we could really help with that.”

National trend

Similar donations are providing services that government once funded. Among them:

The Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit group in New York City, provides 85 percent of Central Park’s $37 million annual budget through fundraising and investment revenue. Conservancy-funded crews mow the grass, plant thousands of trees and flowers, maintain 26 ball fields, pick up trash and remove graffiti within 24 hours. Through a partnership with the city, the group has transformed the once-dilapidated, 843-acre park over the past 15 years, building playground equipment, restoring the Great Lawn and installing thousands of new park benches and water fountains.

A group of donors announced this month they had raised $900,000 to keep Henry Coe State Park, California’s second-largest state park, from closing due to state budget cuts. The new group, which calls itself the Coe Park Preservation Fund, provided half of the operating costs over the next three years for the park, which is 20 miles south of San Jose. The group is hoping other donors around the state will chip in to save 69 other state parks proposed for closure by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Major national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Acadia, have built visitor centers, education facilities and trails in recent years with private funds.

And in San Francisco, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit, has provided $215 million and more than 250,000 volunteers to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area over the past 30 years. In 2001, the group leveraged an $18 million gift from the Haas family, heirs to the Levi Strauss bluejeans fortune, to transform Crissy Field on San Francisco’s waterfront from a shuttered military airstrip into a great meadow and public beach visited by millions. With another Haas gift, the conservancy is overseeing a $22 million project to build 24 miles of new trails, upgrade a campground and construct six scenic overlooks at the Presidio in San Francisco. It also has funded projects at Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands and other Northern California national park units.

“Because more and more groups like ours have been around longer and are gaining a following, I think there’s an upward trend for this kind of philanthropy,” said Greg Moore, executive director of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “The economy has been very difficult over the last three years, but for us, contributions have been stable and growing.”

There’s no question as to the need. The national park system has an $8 billion maintenance backlog. California’s state park system has a $1.8 billion backlog.

Vital assistance

Given that shortfall, parks supporters say private donations are a great way to fund high-profile projects. But they caution that more government funding is needed, particularly for parks that aren’t near wealthy areas.

“The money is there in the Bay Area. And Yosemite is an iconic park,” said Ron Sundergill, Pacific region director for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit parks advocacy group. “But the smaller parks, and the parks in rural areas, what happens there? It’s really critical that the public funding stay.”

Typically, donors are more attracted to high-profile construction projects than to funding mundane daily needs.

“Most people who donate money don’t want to pay wages and salaries. They want to do a project, or keep a park open,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California state parks. “But our door is open. We will gladly, gladly, gladly talk to any philanthropist who is willing to talk to us.”

In the case of Yosemite, Tollefson has seen both sides. Before taking over as head of the Yosemite Conservancy, he served as superintendent of Yosemite from 2003 to 2009, and before that, superintendent of Sequoia-Kings Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

In addition to helping upgrade Yosemite’s 800 miles of trails, the Yosemite Conservancy restores campgrounds, operates the park’s bookstores, and offers guided walks and photo classes. It trains 27,000 children a year through Yosemite’s Junior Ranger program and funds scientific studies of gray owls and other wildlife.

Each year, park officials make a list of projects they need help funding, and the Yosemite Conservancy chooses which ones it thinks are most worthy and visible.

The conservancy has 40,000 donors and an annual budget of about $13 million. Since its founding in 1989, it has contributed $60 million to the park, funding such things as Tioga Road overlooks, gleaming trails, restrooms and fencing around Yosemite Falls.

Without the roughly $9 million a year that the conservancy adds to Yosemite, the park, with a $28 million annual operating budget, could afford only the basics: paving roads, repairing the sewer system and providing rangers.

“Parks change people’s lives. They inspire people,” Tollefson said. “The reality is that the government never will be able to do it all, even before the current economic crisis. People absolutely love their national parks. And we feel we are providing that margin of excellence that makes the park that much better for visitors.”