At a time when national parks run on tight budgets, a recent $1 million gift from the estate of national parks lover Elizabeth “Bette” Ruth Wallace will support much-needed infrastructure updates in Washington’s Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic National Parks.
Washington’s National Park Fund (WNPF), which supplements federal funding of the state’s national parks, announced the donation—the largest in the nonprofit’s history—last week. Since 2014, WNPF has donated more than $4 million to the parks.
The gift will be split evenly between the three parks. Laurie Ward, executive director of WNPF, called the gift “life-changing,” highlighting the need to help fund Washington’s parks as national parks are operating on small budgets, sometimes with limited staff.
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, national parks collectively face an $11.6 billion backlog, despite a 19 percent increase in visitors between 2011 and 2017. In the same amount of time, the park system has seen an 11 percent reduction in staff. The National Park Service (NPS) comprises a small part of the federal budget each year—for example, funding for the NPS accounted for $3.2 billion of the recently approved $1.3 trillion spending bill for the 2018 fiscal year. In addition to taxpayer dollars, parks rely on donations from private citizens and philanthropies to fill in critical funding gaps.
Wallace’s contribution is expected to help lessen some of the financial strain felt by Washington’s national parks. Park lovers are celebrating coverage of the donation by outlets ranging from the Associated Press to Saturday Night Live, and supporters like WNPF hope that making parks a part of the national dialogue may inspire similar donations on both a local and national scale.
“This million-dollar gift is absolutely catapulting Washington's National Park Fund to the next level. It’s the gift we’ve been waiting for and is having a significant impact on Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic National Parks. We see this as the start of giving at this level,” Ward said.
“The parks want and need that support—and in my opinion, they deserve it,” she added.
How can the public expect to see Wallace’s dollars in action? Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks plan to combine their funds to purchase a computer-aided dispatch system and equip a greater number of park employees with personal locator beacons. This will allow dispatchers to monitor the location of park employees using a single centralized display, keeping staff and visitors safer—especially during emergency-response situations.
“Our country’s national parks have experienced many financial challenges in recent years and there is a significant maintenance backlog. This wonderful donation via WNPF enables us to invest in much-needed safety technology that can quite literally save lives in Washington for years to come,” Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum said in a statement.
North Cascades National Park will use the funds to make infrastructure improvements for park volunteers, including those who support the visitor center, youth and education programs, campground hosting, search and rescue, maintenance and science and inventory monitoring.
All three parks will use the funds to support their youth and family programs, which improve access to Washington’s national parks for low-income families and provide interactive displays and hands-on exhibits for young children.
In addition to helping to finance key updates, a portion of Wallace’s gift will be invested in each of the three national parks' endowments, helping to safeguard the livelihood of the parks for years to come. As a world traveler and adventurer who enjoyed skiing and playing golf, this was Wallace’s wish.
WNPF was co-founded by mountaineer and glacier-travel guide, Lou Whittaker. Lou’s brother, Jim Whittaker, served as REI’s first full-time employee, retiring as President and CEO after 25 years with the co-op. REI supports Washington’s National Park Fund through Climb for a Cause.