When you think of parks, whether Yosemite or your corner playground, you probably think of them as quintessentially public institutions—as the Ken Burns documentary puts it, “America’s best idea.” And while parks are indeed public institutions, a great many owe their existence, growth, and endurance to the generosity of creative donors.
The grandfather of park philanthropy
John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the most prolific donor of American parks, and his most iconic contribution was to help secure Grand Teton National Park. The Teton range itself had been protected in 1929, but Rockefeller recognized that the mountains “are seen at their best from the Jackson Hole Valley,” which is also “the natural and necessary feeding place for the game which inhabits Yellowstone Park and the surrounding region.” So Rockefeller began buying land from willing sellers until he owned 35,000 acres—most of the valley. He eventually donated the land and large alpine lakes at the foot of the mountains to the National Park Service, in 1949, in what historian Robert Righter has called “perhaps the most notable conservation victory of the twentieth century.”
The wild, wild east
Mount Katahdin—just shy of a mile high, Maine’s loftiest point, and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—is the iconic centerpiece of Baxter State Park. One might assume that a park named for former Maine governor Percival Baxter is a product of political patronage, but Katahdin’s preservation is actually a story of private philanthropic initiative. The Portland-born Baxter had spent his boyhood summers fishing and exploring in Maine’s deep woods, and during his time as governor from 1921 to 1925, he tried to persuade legislators to acquire and conserve the land around Katahdin for the people of Maine. But that effort failed. So after leaving office Baxter put his considerable wealth where his mouth was. In 1930, he bought Katahdin and the surrounding land and gave it to the state. Over the next three decades, he pieced together more than 200,000 acres—encompassing 40 separate peaks, hundreds of lakes, streams, and waterfalls, and abundant wildlife—and deeded them all to his Maine neighbors. He also donated a $7 million trust fund to manage the park, and a thoughtful plan designating different sections for various public uses: hunting and trapping here, wildlife sanctuary there, 30,000 acres as a showplace of managed timbering, 215 miles of trails, and ten campgrounds. In Baxter’s own words, Katahdin “in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine,” thanks to private initiative.