Many of America’s most iconic natural attractions are the products of philanthropy. Hundreds of national parks, urban green spaces, zoos and aquariums, public waterways and shorelines, wildlife and pet protections, gardens, and arboretums have been created or bolstered by private givers. The first major patrons of nature giving in this country were John Rockefeller Jr. and then his son, Laurance. Their focused, timely support established or enlarged national parks like Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Virgin Islands, Yosemite, Big Bend, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Haleakala, Redwood, Lassen Volcanic, Mesa Verde, and Shenandoah, as well as Antietam, Big Hole, Fort Donelson, and other battlefield parks, various state parks, the Marsh-Billings farm, the Blue Ridge Parkway, numerous historic sites and monuments, and local parks. But smaller donors and many grassroots voluntary philanthropic efforts have been even more important, helping save creatures like the peregrine falcon, swift fox, wild turkey, wolf, snowy egret, bluebird, and numerous fish, creating outdoor oases for everyday citizens to enjoy, conserving rare trees and plants, uncovering fresh solutions to ecological dilemmas, even pushing the boundaries of natural science through privately supported physics and biological research. Donated money flows to these causes today at rates higher than ever before. The Environmental Grantmakers Association is able to identify billions of dollars of annual funding by U.S. donors. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister with assistance from Brian Brown, Evan Sparks, Justin Torres

Longwood Gardens was the prize creation of donor Pierre du Pont. It offers visitors 1,000 acres of formal landscaping, forest, and greenhouses. But its centerpiece is a grand fountain garden that du Pont created after studying classic European examples for years.

Opened in 1931, Longwood’s liquid displays, stonework, and integrated plantings were in serious need of repair when the institution’s directors decided that the right way to honor du Pont’s love of water parks would be to upgrade theirs to today’s state of the art. So rather than simply redoing the 85-year-old existing layout they launched a $90 million renovation that increased the number of fountain jets from 380 to 1,719 (with some reaching a height of 175 feet), added propane flames to certain water columns, and choreographed the displays, via computer, to pieces of music—so that every show varies according to what is being heard.

Grand fountains have been a centerpiece of landscape design for centuries, but perhaps nowhere else in the world have they taken as spectacular a form as at this well-endowed park outside Philadelphia.

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is the busiest in the country, with more than 100,000 locals walking or rolling down the 18-mile path on peak days. The fact that bikers and pedestrians have to share the existing trail is a serious problem at present, with frequent near-misses and collisions. At the end of 2016, Chicago financier Ken Griffin solved that difficulty with a $12 million pledge that will allow creation of separate trails for those on foot and those who are riding. “Our lakefront is unparalleled,” said Griffin in announcing the donation. “On a beautiful day, the Lakefront Trail should be a place where cyclists, runners, and walkers can enjoy their activities without having to navigate around one another.”

Oracle software chief Larry Ellison has long shown philanthropic interest in wildlife. Now he is taking an active role in sustaining threatened animals. He is making a major donation, estimated in the range of $55 million, to create a center near San Jose, California, that will rehabilitate about 8,500 injured creatures annually, and also operate an advanced breeding and rehabilitation facility focused on local species—particularly on unflashy reptiles, amphibians, and insects. It is hoped, for instance, that Ellison’s breeding program can have a role in rebuilding the population of Lange’s metalmark butterfly, down to an estimated 45 individuals at last count. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they would welcome the help of a donor-organized effort that might someday allow the creature to be removed from the endangered species list.

“Throughout much of the country, this is a golden age for signature urban parks. From Boston to Houston, New York to San Francisco, Atlanta to Pittsburgh, St. Louis to Detroit, beautiful old destination parks are being renewed and some great new ones are being created.” That’s the conclusion of a 2015 report from the Trust for Public Land, which looks closely at the use of private, donor-powered conservancies to manage public parks. The report finds that since the first experiment in 1980—the Central Park Conservancy which has since raised more than $700 million to burnish that New York City treasure—roughly half of all major cities now rely on at least one nonprofit to manage and fund crucial parks. A majority of these have been created just since 2000.

Over a 20-year period, investor Richard Gilder donated more than $125 million to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He also devoted much time and brainpower—for instance in spearheading the museum’s expansion of its Hayden Planetarium into the more ambitious Rose Center for Earth and Space (described in a nearby 1999 entry). His most interesting gift, however, may have been the one that established the Richard Gilder Graduate School right within the museum—where scientists can now earn Ph.D.s in biology, and teachers can complete master’s degrees in science instruction. Building on this unusual pedagogical capacity within the museum, Gilder announced his latest and largest gift in 2014: $50 million to kick off a six-story addition that will particularly provide space for the museum’s growing education programs. The new wing will also accommodate additional research by staff, and help the museum cope with its jump in visitors—from 3 million annually during the 1990s to 5 million per year in 2015.

The most influential tool in astronomy and astrophysics over the last generation has been the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2014, construction began on a new instrument, to be located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, that will provide images 12 times sharper than Hubble’s. The Thirty Meter Telescope will have nine times the light-collecting power of the largest existing telescopes, and its new “adaptive optics”—making constant minute mirror adjustments to counteract turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere—will allow it to create images as sharp as those taken in space where there is no atmosphere to deflect incoming light. The potent instrument will initially be used to understand the formation of stars and planets and the evolution of galaxies, and is expected to have revolutionary effects on cosmology and fundamental physics.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is likely to work often in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope—the successor to Hubble now being built by NASA for launch sometime between 2018 and 2020. The Webb telescope may locate targets that will then be studied in detail by the powerful spectrometers in the TMT. Interestingly, the Webb is a government-run, publicly funded project that is currently nine years late, with an expense overrun of four times the original plan, yielding a total cost of $9 billion. Meanwhile the TMT is a collaboration among U.S. universities and overseas science organizations, funded by private philanthropy, and its total cost will be about $1.2 billion by the time it opens its “eye” eight years from the construction launch.

The trailblazing funder enabling the Thirty Meter Telescope is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Endowed by the co-founder of Intel Corporation, the Moore Foundation provided a seminal early investment of $50 million in 2003 to design the telescope, then pledged an additional $200 million in 2007 to complete the planning and initiate construction. By the end of 2013, Moore’s full quarter-billion dollar pledge had been delivered to project leaders at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. Both universities launched campaigns to raise matching millions from other private donors, thus powering this landmark project almost entirely with philanthropic money.

There will never be as much instrument time on large telescopes as astronomers would like for conducting experiments, so a similar project—the Giant Magellan Telescope backed by a different group of universities and philanthropists—has been nearly as avidly supported. Oil and gas pioneer George Mitchell, father of the “fracking” process, donated more than $33 million to the Magellan project before his death in 2013. His gifts, given through Texas A&M University starting in 2004, not only launched the 25-meter telescope from concept to construction project, but also spurred major financial and scientific partners like the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard to sign on as well. Site preparation began in 2014, with initial telescope operation expected in 2020.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, offers a good example of how local philanthropy enriches American lives. This small city has generous individual donors and independent foundations along with a community foundation endowed with $3.8 billion in assets. Now a new donor-funded park is taking shape along the Arkansas River that runs through town, placing a fresh green crown on Tulsa’s head. In the summer of 2014 local oilman and banker George Kaiser made a $350 million gift—the largest for a public park in U.S. history—to create what will be known as “A Gathering Place.” The park will wind through the heart of the city and total nearly 100 acres when complete.

Drawing on suggestions collected in public meetings, it will connect four riverside sites into a cohesive recreation area with amenities like bike trails, boating, tennis courts, open lawns and gardens, playgrounds, a skate park, water features, and public meeting spaces. The Kaiser Foundation donated most of the land, as well as design, engineering, and construction plans, plus $50 million to operate and maintain the park once it is open. Supplementing Kaiser’s $200 million were funds from other private donors, companies, and foundations like those created by the Chapman, Schusterman, Murphy, and Helmerich families. The local government will own the property, but a private conservancy established by the Kaiser Foundation will manage and program it, following the philanthropic model which has been so successful in other parts of the country.

The Boy Scouts of America had a problem. Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia had for nearly two decades been home to the Scouts’ national jamboree, which draws 45,000 boys and up to 300,000 friends and family from across the country. But throwing up the temporary infrastructure needed for the quadrennial jamborees cost the Scouts as much as $16 million each time, and the Scout leadership realized they needed a more permanent fix. That solution came in the form of a 10,600-acre site in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, near the wild New River Gorge. (The deep gorge is cut by the only river that rises east of the Appalachians yet manages to find a slot through the mountains and reach the Ohio River Valley.) The location was perfect: 70 percent of Scouts would be within a 10-hour drive of the site, and it would provide not only a jamboree location but also an eastern “high adventure” base to supplement Scouting’s famous Philmont ranch in the West. The site is surrounded by more than 70,000 acres of federal recreation land that Scouts may explore.

The BSA has long relied on generous giving, but acquiring and developing the West Virginia property was an extraordinary philanthropic lift. Starting in 2009, a long string of individual donors plus some corporations lined up with more than $300 million of quiet gifts. Stephen Bechtel donated $50 million. Walter Scott gave $25 million. Mike Goodrich funded creation of a man-made lake. Consol Energy offered $15 million. Most of the lead donors to the Summit are Eagle Scouts.

A major amount of “terraforming” was needed to create useable sites on the rugged topography. Camping areas and bike trails had to be built. The large lake was dammed. A 9,000-square-foot warehouse was needed on the grounds. A landmark pedestrian bridge was designed to cross the gorge dividing the eastern and western halves of the property.

In addition to hosting jamborees, this spectacular facility, known as the Summit, will allow 88,000 Scouts each year to enjoy whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, climbing and rappelling, swimming, fishing, and shooting sports. The Summit is projected to host 1.5 million Scouts within its first decade; by comparison, Philmont took 70 years to reach 1 million visitors.

Wall Street investor Dan Lufkin grew up in small-town New York, studied at Yale as a naval reservist, joined the Marines, and then earned his MBA at Harvard Business School in 1957. He and two classmates established an investment firm that focused on small fast-growing firms rather than blue-chip companies. Starting with $240,000 in 1960, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette grew over the next 11 years to a net worth exceeding $50 million, and then expanded further.

In 1970 Lufkin approached Tom Meskill, a Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut, with ideas for a new Department of Environmental Protection. The subsequently elected governor appointed Lufkin as the department’s first commissioner. A serious problem in the civil service, Lufkin later noted, is that “you can’t get rid of people who are really doing nothing. With the Department of Environmental Protection, we had a new department…. As a result, all the people we brought were there on merit, not tenure.” His experience in state government led Lufkin to publish Many Sovereign States in 1975, a defense of devolving resources and sovereignty to individual states.

After Lufkin returned to finance, he continued to take an interest in conservation and the outdoors. Riding horses and raising dairy cows, horses, and cattle, were passions, and he was inducted into the Cutting Horse Association’s Hall of Fame. He donated to the National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, National Park Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation Fund, American Farmland Trust, and Atlantic Salmon Federation. With an endowment from Lufkin’s family and friends, the National Audubon Society created the Dan Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership in 2013. The initial recipients of the $100,000 cash prize for innovators in conservation were Dr. George Archibald in 2013, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, land trust pioneer Patrick Noonan in 2014, and Spencer Beebe, an expert in integrating economic and ecological well-being, in 2015. All men in Lufkin’s mold, with an interest in finding ways of conserving nature without damaging human prosperity.

More than 70 of our national parks have established cooperating nonprofit membership associations to help them raise donated funds for park improvements. In 2013, one of these linked nonprofits—the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy—received the largest-ever cash gift made to a U.S. national park. The S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, founded by the owner of the Bechtel construction and engineering firm, offered $25 million to create a new natural space on the top of a roadway that tunnels across the Presidio, the historic and highly scenic open area overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean, which used to be a military post. The funds will also support programming at the Presidio for local youths. A focus of Stephen Bechtel’s philanthropy elsewhere has been Scouting. (See 2013 entry on his gift for the Summit.)

Much of Houston was built on marshland, and the hundreds of miles of natural streams and man-made ditches that drain the area were converted in many places to simple storm channels, lined with concrete and pared of trees and vegetation. Local citizens began to realize that these waterways could serve multiple purposes as recreation areas, non-motorized travel corridors, and beautifiers of the city, without impairing their role in watershed management.

The Houston Parks Board, a private nonprofit that has been improving local green space since 1976, developed an ambitious plan to turn 1,500 acres of utilitarian drainage channels into a citywide necklace of parks and trails. Nine different bayous touching scores of neighborhoods would be cleaned, landscaped, planted, and linked together via 150 miles of new or improved trails. The board would take responsibility for raising $115 million of donated private money, to be matched with $100 million from the city of Houston, and after construction is complete the nonprofit will manage a total of 4,000 acres of new and existing bayou parklands. This will give Houston the largest system of public off-street paths in the nation, and it is estimated that six out of every ten city residents will live within a mile and a half of a bayou park or trail.

Launching this dramatic project was a $50 million gift from local residents Rich and Nancy Kinder—one of the largest voluntary offerings ever for public greenspace in the U.S. Other givers include the Houston Endowment, the Wortham, Fondren, and Brown foundations, and many individual donors. The Kinders had previous experience at underwriting public parks with their donations, (see our 2010 entry describing their revival of Buffalo Bayou Park) and back in 2004 the Kinders provided $10 million to another nonprofit conservancy to create a brand-new permanent green space and public park near their city’s convention center. The new Discovery Green was carved out of 12 underused acres in the middle of downtown. Nancy Kinder served as founding chairwoman of the organization that created and now privately manages the intensively used park—which hosts 400 concerts, festivals, exercise classes, child play groups, pet gatherings, and other events every year, attracting more than a million people.

This and other philanthropic ventures in a number of cities that created popular new parks out of vacant lots, forlorn waterways, abandoned subway trestles, and other overlooked areas have inspired a new wave of donors to build great urban parks using similar private conservancy models. In 2012, for instance, a park opened in Dallas on more than five acres of land created “out of thin air” by decking over a recessed expressway that cuts through the arts district. As in other cases, this project was catalyzed by donor funds, created and managed by a private nonprofit, and enjoyed immediate popularity and heavy use.

As in lots of cities that get transected by highways, when eight subterranean lanes of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway were slashed through downtown Dallas, the surrounding neighborhoods were damaged. But few observers anticipated how strongly the area would re-blossom after three blocks of the freeway were roofed over with philanthropic support and turned into Klyde Warren Park. Named for the son of lead donor Kelcy Warren, the five-acre site was converted into a busy mix of lawn, dog park, playgrounds, food trucks, and performance areas. The free public park has a packed daily schedule of events, concerts, workouts, and meet-ups—all privately managed by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, which raised $55 million of private donations to create the oasis. By becoming the favorite downtown location for residents, and physically reuniting two separated halves of Dallas’s arts district, the park has dramatically transformed local urban life.

Hoping for a similar effect in Philadelphia, the William Penn Foundation announced in 2017 that it would give up to $15 million to encourage a similar capping of several blocks of Interstate 95 where it currently cuts off the Philly downtown from the city’s Delaware River frontage. For a decade now, the foundation has sponsored citizen input, master planning, and a variety of improvement projects, including a new waterfront trail, to build understanding and support for reconnecting Philadelphia with its scenic river.

The Smithsonian Institution was a product of philanthropy (a bequest from James Smithson), and about 30 percent of its budget continues to come from private donations (which play a particularly large role in expansions and new initiatives). A major refresh of its National Museum of Natural History began in the late 1990s, sparking the largest gift to the museum to that point from Ken Behring, who rose from harsh poverty to riches by selling cars and then developing real estate. He donated $20 million to spearhead a massive renovation of Natural History’s ground floor, resulting in, among other things, a new Hall of Mammals which opened in 2003. (Behring later donated $80 million to revitalize the National Museum of American History, making him the Smithsonian’s largest private donor.)

The Museum of Natural History continued its upgrade with a subsequent $15 million gift from philanthropist David Koch, creating the David Koch Hall of Human Origins. Then in 2012 Koch donated an additional $35 million which will be used to remake the museum’s dinosaur hall, its most visited area. One of the highest priorities of museum officials, the dinosaur-hall funding will provide fresh displays and specimens, and allow obsolete interpretations to be updated with the newest information from the fast-changing science of dinosaur paleontology.

The city of Houston was founded on Buffalo Bayou, which runs from the surrounding prairie through downtown to the port lands. A 158-acre park hugging its banks has long been a Houston icon and destination for residents seeking a bit of green or some exercise. But the public park suffered years of neglect and underperformance. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership was established as a nonprofit in 1986 to make better use of Houston’s most significant natural resource. In 2010, the Kinder Foundation, the family charity established by gas pipeline titan Rich Kinder and his wife, Nancy, offered the nonprofit a $30 million grant to catalyze major improvements at the park. After fundraising completed in 2015, a $56 million project was begun to restore the land surrounding the waterway to a more natural and healthy state, build trails and pedestrian bridges, improve lighting and amenities, and otherwise make the park more attractive for users.

The Kinders have provided funds to preserve and upgrade other public parks in Houston as well, including Hermann Park, home to the city zoo and other important institutions, and Emancipation Park, an historic site first purchased by freed slaves. In addition to this work reviving existing parks, the Kinders have been leaders in creating brand-new parks in their home city (see 2013 entry).

Wild horses, or mustangs, have roamed free in the American West since the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Because they have almost no natural predators today, they multiply rapidly and threaten to overgraze the areas where they live on protected federal land in ten Western states. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management keeps the herds at about 27,000 horses by regularly rounding up extra animals. Historically, about 60 percent of these surplus horses have been purchased at auction for adoption. Passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in 2005 banned the killing of leftover horses. Since then, nearly 50,000 mustangs have accumulated in corrals and pastures where the federal government nows pays something like $70 million a year to feed them.

In response, Madeleine Pickens and her husband Boone Pickens purchased two ranches in northeastern Nevada, along with their grazing rights on adjoining public land, and proposed to use this land, fully fenced, as a preserve where culled horses could be allowed to run free. All males would be gelded to prevent the herds from reproducing, and visitors would be invited to camp on the lands and view the wild animals with guides. The BLM would pay fees to the 501(c)(3) preserve at substantially lower levels than their existing costs of warehousing the animals. No agreement has been concluded with the BLM, but in 2015 a portion of the ranch was opened as a tourist destination where Americans can learn about the horses Pickens considers national treasures.

The world’s greatest collection of dinosaur fossils is not located at the Smithsonian, or Field, or British museums, not in New York or Oxford or Boston. It is housed in Bozeman, Montana, at the Museum of the Rockies. The MOR possesses more T. Rex specimens (13) than any other institution, including the world’s largest T. Rex skull. Its curators excavated and conserved the second-most-complete T. Rex skeleton in existence; they were the first to discover soft tissue and proteins in dinosaur bones 67 million years old; the first to document an ovulating female dinosaur; and leaders in finding and categorizing baby and juvenile dinosaurs. The Museum of the Rockies has pioneered new understanding of the growth rates and behavior of dinosaurs, and has launched many fresh hypotheses, such as that tyrannosaurs were scavengers rather than predators, and that dinosaurs nurtured offspring in colonies rather than leaving them to their own devices like modern reptiles.

The museum is associated with Montana State University, but is an independent nonprofit, and heavily reliant upon private philanthropy in developing the dinosaur collections it is famous for. Prominent national donors like Tom Siebel, Catherine Reynolds, George Lucas, Nathan Myhrvold, Ted Turner, and Klein Gilhousen have paid for excavations, subsidized research, and funded the creation of a spectacular museum exhibition that opened in 2007: the Siebel Dinosaur Complex. “This is my dream dinosaur hall,” explained MOR curator of paleontology Jack Horner, the world’s most prominent dinosaur expert, who designed the exhibits paid for by Siebel and others. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported on the opening of the complex: “Horner said almost all of the money supporting the museum’s paleontology comes from private donations. Winning grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation is fine, he said, but they always ask, ‘Can you do it with less?’ Private donors, on the other hand, tend to ask, ‘Are you sure it’s enough?’”

Chester County, one of the three original counties established in Pennsylvania by William Penn, lies west of Philadelphia, and is home to about half a million people. It is a beautiful region made famous by Wyeth-family paintings of scenes along the Brandywine valley that snakes through the area. Two decades ago, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, Philadelphia natives who have given away $1.2 billion of the fortune he earned in cable television, bought 500 acres of open land in the county and had a house designed for the site. “I went out to see it,” Lenfest told Philanthropy magazine. “The hole was dug and the rebar was being put in. I asked the architect, ‘How big is that house?’ And he said: ‘16,000 square feet.’ I thought for a moment, and I said, ‘You know what, fill up the hole.’” With their children grown, that seemed like too much home, Lenfest explained. He and his wife decided to instead give away the property for public use. They kept their residence in the same house they bought in 1966 for $35,000.

The Lenfests donated the Chester County land, which had a market value of about $32 million, to the Natural Lands Trust, a local nonprofit that has helped private-property owners protect 128,000 acres since its founding in 1953. They also donated $5 million to create an endowment for the property, helped the group acquire an adjoining farm, and in 2012 paid for erection of a public lodge. Their gifts were combined with another plot owned by the county to create the 1,263-acre ChesLen Preserve—a privately owned nature center fully open to public access at no charge. It offers eight miles of unpaved trails, canoeing on two miles of the West Branch of Brandywine Creek, horseback riding, and birdwatching, and is one of the largest parks in southeast Pennsylvania. All created at no cost to taxpayers.

After opening his commercial real estate firm in the nation’s capital in 1974, John “Chip” Akridge developed more than 11 million square feet of office space. Disturbed by the increasingly degraded state of the National Mall, Akridge established the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall in 2007 to assist the National Park Service in its maintenance of this heavily used public space (more than 25 million annual visits). He donated $250,000 of his own money to start the project and helped raise millions more. In addition to helping with immediate needs, the Trust sparked a new National Mall Plan which details ambitious improvements that will take place over a period of decades. Trust chairman Akridge announced a $350 million private fundraising effort to pay for these renovations of the nation’s front yard, and donated the first $1 million himself in 2012.

Shelby Farms is a huge oasis (4,500 acres, or five times the size of Central Park in New York) inside Tennessee’s largest city. For most of its life it has been a hodgepodge of raw land and developed areas sprawling without much coherence. Then in 2007 the county awarded a management contract for the park to a new nonprofit conservancy headed by Barbara Hyde, a major Memphis philanthropist married to AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde. The volunteer board created a master plan for developing the park, and in 2008 the Hydes provided a $20 million donation to launch the initiative. Ideas for improvements were solicited from the many neighborhoods adjoining the park, and top designers were brought in to plan a lake, creation of an amphitheater and boathouse, extensive new trails, the planting of one million trees plus other landscaping, and many new amenities. A dramatic playground, new pedestrian bridges, and other enhancements were completed quickly, and park attendance has already tripled since the private conservancy took over. The fundraising campaign hit its goal of $70 million in 2015.

One model for this effort was a similar rejuvenation of a keystone urban park in Atlanta, where a $73 million expansion and renovation of Piedmont Park, the city’s most heavily used green space, attracted donations from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation ($10 million), the Arthur Blank Family Foundation ($5 million), and many others. The City of Atlanta had to commit only $5 million of public funds. In Atlanta as in Memphis, the key element was establishment of a private nonprofit conservancy to manage the effort.

As urban parks expert Guy Hagstette told Philanthropy magazine, the key to building an effective park conservancy is giving the conservancy both fundraising and management power. American cities are dotted with so-called conservancies that are really just fundraising vehicles for city parks departments, without any design or operations power. “That’s just business as usual,” warns Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land. Conservancies with independent authority can accomplish projects faster, with better results—which both deepens donor confidence and dramatically improves the experiences of park users.

Andrew Hodges developed oil and gas fields in Louisiana, then became interested in the cutover timberlands of northwest Louisiana, from which all the virgin longleaf pine trees had been harvested, and the land abandoned. In the 1930s he purchased 107,000 acres of clear-cut and had thousands of pine seedlings planted there, earning himself the title “Father of Forestry” in the region. In the midst of this land was an abandoned stone quarry. Hodges and his wife Nina were attracted to its romantic setting, and built themselves a residence there and began planting gardens amidst the rock of the quarry terraces. They created a large man-made lake, and became obsessed with beautifying the picturesque location. In 1957 they opened the property for public garden visits, hiking, fishing, horse riding, and camping, with a nonprofit organization overseeing operations. In 2007, the Hodges Foundation donated 948 lushly landscaped acres, including the unusual stone-quarry gardens and 225-acre lake, to become the newest Louisiana state park—Hodges Gardens.

The Homestake gold mine extends a mile underground in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its deep shafts had previously been used by physics professors for scientific experiments, and when it closed in 2003 the property was donated to the state in the hope that more advanced work might be conducted in its caverns deep underground—where the overlaying earth shelters equipment from cosmic rays and other signals that can interfere with sensitive tests. There was no money, however, for creating proper physics labs and workspaces in the old mine. In swooped Denny Sanford, a Dakotan and successful medical entrepreneur who has given away more than a billion dollars in his lifetime. He provided a $70 million donation, which loosened up additional funding from state and federal agencies, and the Sanford Underground Research Facility was operating by 2013. The first major collaboration set up in the new lab was a detector of “dark matter,” the theorized but as yet unseen particle that the standard model of physics suggests may make up about a quarter of the cosmos. Another experiment on neutrinos goes live in 2014. The U.S. Department of Energy is now considering settling two more long-term physics investigations in the philanthropically funded lab.

At 2,565 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America, and one of the icons of the national park that encloses it. By the early 2000s, though, the falls were blighted by an ugly bridge, asphalt paths, and a polluted parking lot. In 2003, a private capital campaign was launched to raise $12.5 million to revitalize the visitor experience in the area. Bay Area landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was hired to head up the design, with private donations raised by the Yosemite Fund covering three quarters of the cost. Fully 14,500 individual donors contributed to the effort, and construction was complete a speedy two years after the goal was first announced. The new Lower Yosemite Falls area included re-vegetated areas, natural-looking paths and bridges, 52 acres of habitat restoration, new restrooms, educational exhibits, trail maps, a bus stop, and more. This was just one of more than 300 projects, expending $55 million, that have been privately funded by what is now known as the Yosemite Conservancy. Similar donor funds have sprung up at other parks, and the overarching National Park Foundation now privately raises and grants more than $31 million annually.

Caterpillar Inc. headquarters overlooks the Illinois River, which inspired their Great Rivers Partnership with the Nature Conservancy. The corporation’s foundation donated $12 million to the conservancy in 2005 to start the program, which aims to help “conserve and restore the world’s great river systems.” The effort brings together scientists, navigators, landholders, government officials, business representatives, and residents to improve the health and function of large river systems. The Great Rivers Partnership began by improving stretches of the Mississippi River—which provides drinking water to 18 million people, is vital to farmers and industries, and affects 60 percent of North America’s bird species and many fish and animals. The partnership then used what it learned in its Mississippi work to assist management of two other important rivers: the Upper Yangtze in China, and Brazil’s Parana River. Kicked off by Caterpillar’s initial investment, the conservancy raised $60 million in private funding for the program over five years.

In the mid-1970s, Roxanne Quimby relocated to rural Maine to live close to the earth, without electricity or running water. A decade later, she partnered with beekeeper Burt Shavitz and began making beeswax candles, polishes, and eventually the lip balm that turned Burt’s Bees into a multimillion-dollar personal-care company. In 2000, Quimby started buying up land in Maine’s north woods, near Mount Katahdin, with some of her profits. She accelerated the process after she sold Burt’s Bees for hundreds of millions of dollars (she had previously taken control from Burt). She eventually owned 120,000 acres of woodland wilderness.

Quimby wanted to turn this land into a national park, a desire which proved controversial. An ardent environmentalist, she closed access to land she purchased, banned hunting and fishing, tore up roads and bridges, and stopped snowmobiling. This sparked a loud outcry from locals, who were allowed easy access to the land for personal enjoyment by the paper companies that were the previous proprietors. In response to the backlash, Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, reopened portions of their holdings to certain recreational uses.

In addition to the curtailed recreational use of this vast swath of land, many residents of the Maine woods fear losing forestry jobs and development opportunities if land becomes locked up in a national park. Local citizens voted against a park, and the state legislature passed a resolution opposing any federal designation. But Quimby kept lobbying in Washington, and in 2016, with a stroke of a pen, President Obama turned 87,654 acres donated by Quimby into a National Monument, and posted National Park Service rangers on the premises.

The land was valued at about $60 million. To encourage the transfer, Quimby also donated $20 million as a maintenance endowment, and promised $20 million more in the future to operate the park.

Not surprisingly for the man who brought the big-box store to the hardware business, when Bernie Marcus decided that Atlanta needed an aquarium, he wanted it to be large. And he got his wish: the Georgia Aquarium is the grandest in the world. Marcus was the co-founder of Home Depot, and after he decided to give a present to the Atlantans who made his stores successful by shopping at and staffing them, he went seeking something accessible that all kinds of people could enjoy. He ultimately gave $250 million to build and stock the giant fish tank, which opened in 2005. The facility recently hosted its 20-millionth visitor.

The centerpiece exhibit is an acrylic enclosure holding 6.3 million gallons of sea water and four whale sharks that many biologists did not believe could be successfully transported (by boat, truck, and plane) from Taiwan. The aquarium is also host to one of only two captured sets of great hammerhead sharks, and the only four manta rays displayed in a U.S. aquarium. There are dolphins, Japanese spider crabs, black-footed penguins, and a new exhibit of sea otters. The facility is also home to the Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health, the world’s only integration of an aquarium and veterinarian teaching hospital. It uses 10,000 square feet to produce some of the leading research on conservation of sea creatures.

In an example of what is called “cooperative conservation,” Walmart made a ten-year, $35 million commitment, in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to conserve at least one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre the company developed as a store site. The first grant bought more than 300,000 acres in Maine. Thousands of acres of rare blue oak in the Sierra foothills, tallgrass prairie in Colorado, land adjoining the Appalachian Trail, and a redwood forest in California have also been preserved. In 2011 and 2012 the program branched into urban conservation as well, funding fish ladders, wetland restorations, and other projects in Bridgeport, Chicago, San Diego, and other cities. By 2015, the program had helped conserve more than 900,000 acres in 31 states.

Brad Kelley—a college dropout whose discount cigarette empire made him a billionaire—brews his own bourbon, never uses e-mail, sometimes wears a kilt, and owns more land than there are acres in the whole state of Rhode Island. Astonishingly, none of these are the most eccentric thing about him. That honor undoubtedly goes to Rum Creek Ranch, Kelley’s 40,000-acre spread in southwest Florida where he breeds endangered animals. Kelley’s foray into animal conservation started with rare strains of cattle. That led to the acquisition, over 2004 and 2005, of some 40,000 acres in DeSoto County, for a reported $50 million. Kelley now propagates many exotic species on that land, including tapirs, anoas (a three-foot-tall Indonesian buffalo), hippos, rhinos, bongos (an African mountain antelope featuring psychedelic white-yellow stripes and huge tapered horns), bentang (wild cattle), and others. Many of these animals had been reduced to just a handful of breeding pairs; Kelley’s goal is to work with zoos and conservation groups to reintroduce them in sustainable numbers within their native habitats.

Native son David Jones co-founded Humana Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky, and built it into one of America’s largest private health-care companies. Along the way he participated in many initiatives to improve his home city, but none bigger than the Parklands—a project to create nearly 4,000 acres of brand-new parks in Louisville and then operate them permanently with no public money. Starting in 2004, Jones took responsibility for raising $71 million of private donations; his family provided about $15 million themselves, and he made 100 personal visits and countless calls to raise the remaining funds from 550 individuals, foundations, and companies. His son, Dan Jones, took direction of the nonprofit charged with acquiring land and then designing and building the facilities, including 100 miles of hiking, biking, and paddling trails, playgrounds, a scenic drive, and numerous buildings. The same nonprofit will operate and maintain the facilities (which began to open in 2011, and were two thirds complete in 2015). The Jones family also contributed a large portion of a separate $60 million endowment that the nonprofit will use to meet the annual expenses of operating and maintaining the five major new greenspaces. The Parklands “will always be a donor-supported park,” notes Dan Jones, fully open to the public, but run without any taxpayer support.

Concerned about the decline of the world’s fish population and the abysmal failures of existing government interventions to solve the problem, Barrett Walker decided to use market-based techniques and funding from his family’s Walker Foundation to take on the issue. He started a chain reaction of philanthropy that in less than ten years transformed solutions to overfishing.

Previously, government regulations had simply capped the total number of fish that could be caught, or the number of days that fishing was allowed. These encouraged a survival-of-the-fittest rush each year to garner as big a haul as possible before the caps set in, which led to safety problems and overfishing. Encouraged by experiments in Alaska and overseas, Walker decided to promote catch sharing—which makes fishermen shareholders in each year’s total allowable catch (which is set by scientists based on fish populations). Shares can be traded, and grow in value as the allowable catch increases thanks to improved fish reproduction and sustainability. Walker started working in 2003 with the Bradley and Koch foundations to improve understanding of the subject. In 2006, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made a $5 million research grant to the University of California, Santa Barbara to research the effectiveness of catch sharing. The study concluded that it could stop and even reverse the decline of fisheries. The Allen Family Foundation then provided money to allow the California Fisheries Fund to plan a transition to such a system.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a multibillion-dollar entity established by the ex-Intel CEO with a focus on water and marine life and a particular interest in “aligning economic incentives with conservation goals” in fishery management, then donated funds to test an onboard video system that allowed fishermen to monitor their catches efficiently. It was so successful the foundation followed up with a 2007 grant to New England fishermen. Catch sharing was implemented in 2010 in New England, and in 2011 for Pacific trawl groundfishing. In 2012, the Moore Foundation made a $2.7 million grant to assess the New England and Pacific systems so operations could be refined.


Though he lacks academic credentials, Jack Horner has revolutionized paleontology with the help of a gaggle of independent-minded donors. After flunking out of college seven times then serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, Horner sweet-talked his way into a technician’s job at a natural history museum. He soon began a string of spectacular finds in dinosaur fossil beds that eventually propelled him to leadership of America’s most productive dinosaur research program. Along the way, his work has been powered by about $12 million of private donations from enthusiastic givers who were not bothered by Horner’s unconventional path into his field.

One highlight came in 2000, when one of Horner’s crews discovered a T. Rex footbone jutting from the steep face of a cliff. Soon an epic excavation was under way, quickly funded by Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. Once the remarkably intact specimen had been hacked out and encased in a plaster jacket, the only way to carry it off from the cliff was with a helicopter. Enter improvising donor number two: philanthropist and pilot Terry Kohler, who lent his whirlybird, flew it himself, and gave Horner hundreds of thousands of dollars to analyze his fossils.

To pull off the air-evacuation of the 3,000-pound specimen it had been necessary to break one of the creature’s massive femurs. Horner used this “problem” as an opportunity and asked one of his students to study the inside of the bone. Shockingly, she found the remains of soft tissue preserved inside the 68-million-year-old fossil—revealing blood vessels and bone matrix reminiscent of what is found in an ostrich, and suggesting the T. Rex was a female.

Horner reports he has relied much more on private philanthropy than on government science-funding bureaucracies because donors are more willing to support unusual approaches, to move quickly and flexibly, to stick passionately with work that is slow to yield results, and understand imaginative breakthroughs. “Frankly, my donors are more engaged than the government is,” he told Philanthropymagazine. “They want to see the project succeed.”

The Canada lynx was added to the U.S. endangered species list in 2000. One of the five areas of “critical habitat” for the animal was Loomis State Forest in Washington, where up to half of the cats in that state were thought to live. Most of that forest was trust land managed by the state, with the proceeds from timber sales going to schools to pay for the education of local children. In 1998 the state of Washington offered to end timber sales on the land if conservationists could raise sufficient funds—within one year—to compensate the schools for loss of this lumbering revenue. A local campaign was launched to raise $13 million in donations from private individuals and foundations. Just as the campaign reached its goal, via 3,500 donations large and small, the estimate of the fair market value of the lumber in the forest increased to $16.5 million. Seattle philanthropist Paul Allen then stepped forward to contribute the extra amount. The proceeds upon closing went directly into the school trust fund to benefit education, and the state redesignated the forest as a natural resource conservation area, allowing it to be managed as a wild area to benefit the lynx rather than for timbering.

Sometimes the vision and management direction a philanthropist offers to a project can be as valuable as his money. Financier Richard Gilder was a longtime member of the board of directors for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and served on its planetarium committee. By 1992, annual attendance at the venerable Hayden Planetarium had dropped by more than 20 percent in a decade, and the facility was showing its age. Museum leaders originally planned a modest upgrade that would cost $15 million. Gilder urged starting over, and called not just for a new planetarium and exhibits but also a high-powered research center (Gilder eventually convinced astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be the first director). The grand $210 million project attracted donations, including one for $20 million from builder and philanthropist Frederick Rose. Gilder contributed significantly himself. In just a few years, the modest planetarium had become the Rose Center for Earth and Space, with multiple theaters, halls, and exhibits.

When Duke Energy started selling most of its landholdings in the 1990s, conservationists took an interest. One section alone where the Piedmont hills meet the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina is home to 46 endangered species of plants. By 1999, deals were brokered that transferred 40,000 acres in South Carolina to state wildlife management areas, and 10,000 acres of the Jocassee Gorges to North Carolina park authorities (thanks to leadership from the Nature Conservancy and funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation—see 1988 entry). Of this latter section, 7,200 acres became Gorges State Park, the only North Carolina state park west of Asheville. After an additional decade of private fundraising, headed up by an all-volunteer board of community advisers, a $3.6 million visitor center opened to accommodate people who came to gaze upon the many waterfalls and temperate rainforest, which hosts one of the greatest concentrations of rare plant species in the eastern United States.

When freight trains ran at ground level through the industrial portions of Manhattan there were so many accidents that eventually a massive effort was made to elevate the rail line on trestles. The project, which opened to trains in 1934, cost $2 billion in current dollars, and was built so solidly that the structures were still there long after the freight stopped running in 1980. Hardy grasses and trees had grown up amidst the remaining elevated trackways, snaking for more than a mile through lower Manhattan, and offering unexpected views of the city. Officials were making plans to demolish these sections when Friends of the High Line was formed as a nonprofit in 1999, by two neighborhood residents, to advocate for preservation and reuse of the open rail-bed as a snaking linear park. The group developed popular momentum, began to raise funds to pay for its dream, and garnered its first million-dollar donation in 2006 (from the married couple of Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg). In 2009 the first of three major sections of elevated park opened to the public. Phase two debuted in 2011, with a third section launching in 2014. The nonprofit has a contract with the city giving it responsibility for maintenance and operation of the park, and it has raised more than $100 million of private money to design, create, and run the operation. Diller and von Furstenberg have donated more than $35 million, and other foundations, individuals, and corporations have made large gifts as well. The unconventional open space has proven wildly popular, attracting 4.4 million visitors per year and sparking an estimated $2 billion of private development in formerly industrial sections of New York.

The Arc of Appalachia isn’t a government park, and it’s not run by professionals, but it’s one of the more ambitious land-preservation efforts of recent years. Nancy Stranahan and Larry Henry had worked in the Ohio state parks system before starting a bakery in the 1980s after tiring of bureaucracy. Their love of nature led them to start buying abandoned land in Ohio to “re-wild” it. They opened their first park, Highlands Nature Sanctuary, in 1995. By 2004 they had sold their bakery to focus on managing 38 pieces of land, totaling 1,600 acres, that they had acquired with support from individual givers and foundations. They let native deciduous forests re-grow on the acreage, and built visitor centers from which the public could enjoy the forests. By 2014, their Arc of Appalachia nonprofit had raised over $10 million, 75 percent from individuals and the rest from foundation grants, and was operating 14 nature preserves across Ohio supported entirely by donations.

In the 1920s, Grover Blanton purchased 2,300 acres of forested land on Pine Mountain in Harlan County, Kentucky. It was one of the few ancient forests left in the state, full of huge oaks and other rare trees towering 100 feet or more. These were the same trees seen by American pioneers passing through the Cumberland Gap in the 1700s, and the Blanton family faithfully maintained and protected the forest for another 73 years. In 1995, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust was founded with the aspiration of courting enough donors to acquire the Blanton Forest. Keen to protect what they saw as their regional treasure, local residents by the hundreds contributed to the campaign. Eventually, an anonymous $500,000 gift and another $500,000 from the James Graham Brown Foundation in Louisville raised the group’s kitty to the level needed to buy the land. The first purchase was made in 1995, and a second in 2001, and the 3,000-acre Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve was dedicated. With this success in hand, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust went on to use additional land purchases, easements, and conservation partnerships to protect other acreage surrounding the state’s largest old-growth forest.

The swift fox is the smallest of North America’s wild canids, weighing only 4 to 6 pounds, or not much more than an average house cat. Historically, the animal ranged from the northern Great Plains to Texas, but by 1990 it was gone from 90 percent of its historic U.S. territory. In 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that listing the swift fox as endangered was warranted, but the designation was suspended while a conservation team considered recovery strategies. Various state, tribal, and private groups swung into action. Philanthropic efforts to rehabilitate shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies on private land (under the auspices of the Nature Conservancy, American Prairie Foundation, and other nonprofits) added habitat congenial to the foxes. A number of community programs were launched to reintroduce foxes to land where they were absent. For instance, a grant from the Sand County Foundation’s Bradley Fund for the Environment paid for relocation of several hundred foxes from Canada to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. University of Montana research showed the project was a success, and as a direct result the swift fox in Montana was removed as a candidate for threatened status. The cumulative result of these efforts was to allow the little foxes to make a comeback. In the United States, the swift fox has now returned to more than 40 percent of its historic range. In 2001, federal authorities removed the species from consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

At 14, Fred Meijer joined the new grocery store business of his parents, immigrants from Holland, and in 1962 he started building what would become known as superstores. By the time Meijer was finished he had 200 retail outlets and the fifteenth-largest private company in the nation. As he became a major donor in his home region of Michigan, one of his interests was to get Americans outdoors more often. So he provided steady funding for creation of the first rail-to-trail projects in his state.

In 1994, Meijer purchased a 42-mile stretch of abandoned CSX Railroad corridor and began converting it into a “linear park” open to the public. He also provided a Midwest Michigan Rail Trail Endowment Fund to cover future maintenance. The old trackbed threads voyagers through fields, woods, and small towns in the heart of Michigan farm country and one of America’s major potato-growing regions, where Fred Meijer grew up on his family dairy farm.
The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, completed in 2011, will eventually be part of a larger trail system stretching 125 miles—making it the fifth-largest continuous rail-trail in the nation.

During his lifetime, Fred Meijer donated about $10 million to rails-to-trails work. The Meijer Foundation remains an important funder of right-of-way acquisitions and construction costs. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which today has 150,000 members and a hand in 20,000 miles of pathways nationwide, has honored Fred Meijer as one of the pioneers of the rail-trail movement.

Vermont’s first national park, described at its opening as “an entirely new kind…one where the human stories and the natural history are intertwined,” was a gift of Laurance Rockefeller and his wife, Mary. In 1992 they paved the way for the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park by donating a pristine antique farm with a rich American history, one of the first managed forests in the U.S., and a mansion house with a rich collection of nature paintings by Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, and others. The gift was collectively valued at $21 million, and transferred with a $7.5 million endowment in addition.

The park operates in partnership with the nonprofit Woodstock Foundation, which manages the Billings Farm and Museum. The Billings Farm was a product of earlier philanthropy, established in 1871 by native Vermonter Frederick Billings after he made his fortune during the San Francisco Gold Rush. He built a model herd of Jersey cows and experimented with advanced agricultural processes, which he then showcased for others. While operating as a museum of rural heritage, the farm also remains a working dairy—every year producing prized Jersey breeding cows along with thousands of pounds of milk that is used to make Cabot cheese.

The Woodstock Foundation also owns the for-profit Woodstock Inn and Resort, likewise gifted by the Rockefellers, whose earnings are used to benefit the work of the foundation. Together, these institutions give thousands of annual visitors a detailed picture of New England nature, traditional agricultural work, and three generations of American history.

In Florida, management of water is crucial to human residents, agriculture, and wildlife. The rain that falls on the savannahs in the center of the state fills the Kissimmee River, which drains into Lake Okechobee, which in turn supplies the Everglades “river of grass,” as well as providing drinking water for about 40 percent of Floridians. In the 1930s, ranchers began to dig drainage ditches which converted thousands of acres of central Florida wetland into pasture. Fresh water that had gone to the Everglades was increasingly diverted to canals dumping into the sea on the east and west coasts. The Kissimmee and Okechobee suffered; the Everglades retreated; and the tracts south of Orlando that had previously acted as sponges absorbing billions of gallons of water during Florida’s rainy season, then slowly filtering it south, were now impermeable hard grassland or, increasingly, urban development. Complicated engineering to restore the health of Florida’s hydrological system turned out to be extremely expensive, so regulators, developers, and nature nonprofits began to jointly seek more natural solutions.

A partnership between the Disney Company and the Nature Conservancy suggested that plugging the drainage ditches on the cattle ranches in central Florida and restoring their degraded but reclaimable wetlands could be a comparatively simple and effective contribution. So to legally mitigate for filling in 550 acres of marsh near Lake Buena Vista (already surrounded by development) in order to build housing for Disney World, Disney bought an 8,500 acre cattle ranch along the Kissimmee River that was slated to experience suburban development, then donated it, along with millions of dollars, to the Nature Conservancy so the nonprofit could restore the land to wetland and native habitat. Three years later, the Orlando airport authority donated an adjoining 3,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy for similar restoration, to compensate for 736 acres of wetland eliminated to expand the airfield.

The 11,500 total acres then had their drainage closed. Introduced plants and trees were removed, controlled burns were begun, and native plantings were made. A decade and a half after these land swaps, the former cattle ranch had been restored to its primeval state, and its wetland filtering was improving the quality and quantity of water in the Everglades watershed. Red-cockaded woodpeckers were reintroduced to the preserve’s restored longleaf pines, hundreds of pairs of endangered wood storks bred among the bald cypress rimming Russell Lake, and the largest concentrations of bald eagles and sandhill cranes in the region took up residence.

Disney donated a total of $45 million over 20 years to create the Disney Wilderness Preserve. With its success, easements began to be purchased from other cattle ranches in the same watershed and donated to the Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits so that additional historic wetlands could be naturally rehydrated, while pasturing continued nearby. One of the largest wetland restorations in history is now under way, creating a decentralized “dispersed storage” solution to aid Florida’s water problems. Home to 1,000 species of plants and animals, the Disney Wilderness Preserve is also open to the public for recreational use.

When the Fort Worth Zoo was owned and operated by the city, money was scarce, facilities were outdated, and attendance was dropping. In 1991, the middling public facility was almost forced to close due to lack of funds. Then Ramona Bass, a local animal lover from a wealthy family, suggested moving control of the zoo to a nonprofit association. More substantively, Bass suggested a new mission for the zoo. Frustrated by increasingly negative zoo narratives of people versus planet—a zero-sum game where one side prospers only at the expense of the other—she envisioned a facility that recognized shared interests between humans and animals, and “strengthened the bond between humans and the environment by promoting responsible stewardship of wildlife.”

Bass recruited impressive support from individuals and local businesses, built an unusually diverse board that included people like wildlife experts at corporations and professors of agriculture, and was able to create innovative programming that visitors could find nowhere else. The new zoo was simultaneously pro-animal and pro-human, with striking new displays that highlight harmonious co-existence, rather than walling off wildlife. (Their black bears, for instance, were placed in a facsimile of an abandoned lumbering camp, emphasizing recovery and intelligent adaptation.) Even the logo for the section of the zoo on Texas wildlife—a human hand print overlapping a coyote track—emphasizes mutual prosperity.

Since its transfer from public management, the association-run zoo has raised more than $20 million in private funding and opened 16 new permanent exhibits and facilities. Attendance has doubled, and the Fort Worth Zoo is now rated near the top in the U.S.

Jim and Mary Faulkner began purchasing timberlands in New Hampshire in 1937, and over time assembled what is now the Andorra Forest—11,500 acres strong, and productively used and enjoyed in many ways. Several generations of the Faulkner family have now managed the property as a sustainable “tree farm,” aiming to maximize four benefits of the land according to the longstanding Tree Farm System: wood production, water quality, recreation, and wildlife.

Agriculture that ended in the late-1800s and a forest fire that swept through in the 1940s created some small pastures within the forest where Highland beef cattle are raised, and open sections where 50 acres of wild highbush blueberries now grow. Controlled burns and brush hogging are used to keep the blueberries from being overgrown, and for a small fee the public is allowed to come in and pick the wild bushes in late summer. For decades, the forest was mostly managed by weeding and thinning trees, but now that much of the timber is reaching maturity, sustainable silviculture practices are followed to harvest commercial hardwood and softwood lumber selectively every winter, when the ground is hard. Thinnings and canopy openings are also undertaken to encourage tree regeneration and wildlife habitat in particular areas.

The entire 11,500 acres is open to the public for recreational use. There is a nine-mile stretch of through-hiking trail crossing the property, plus many local trails used by showshoers, skiers, and walkers. Snowmobiling is the only motorized use allowed. Wildlife studies are conducted on the property in conjunction with partners like Antioch University and the Audubon Society. In 1990 the family donated a conservation easement for the entire property to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, making it one of the largest private forests in the eastern U.S. with such an easement. In 1991, the family designated 2,685 acres of the property as the Wildcat Hollow wilderness area, to preserve it (including the first known moose breeding grounds in southwestern New Hampshire) as animal habitat, managed on a “forever wild” basis.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation has been one of the nation’s most active conservers of American land over the last generation. (See separate 1988 entry.) Protecting Civil War battlefields has been one of their priorities. In 1998, for instance, the foundation purchased the land where Stonewall Jackson made his famous flank attack at Chancellorsville, being mortally wounded in the process. The tract was donated to Spotsylvania County, with an historic easement being simultaneously given to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The foundation’s investment of $10.5 million in Civil War land purchases in 1990 was one of the largest gifts given to create a park up to that time, and preserved acreage at the Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg battlefields plus the Shenandoah National Park.

Atlanta had no botanical garden until 1973 when a group of civic-minded residents gathered and offered up the resources for launching a private nonprofit to create and run a garden adjoining the city’s popular Piedmont Park. Atlantan J. B. Fuqua became the main donor. Fuqua had grown up exceedingly poor then made his fortune in radio stations and manufacturing, going on to become a major philanthropist—giving about $40 million, for instance, to create the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Fuqua provided $8.5 million to the Atlanta Botanical Garden to create a main pavilion named in honor of his wife, plus a specialized structure for orchids. The Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory, opened in 1989, offers indoor exhibits of tropical flora, desert plants, and other living things. The adjoining Fuqua Orchid Center, which debuted in 2002, displays the largest and rarest orchid collection in the United States. In addition to its tropical orchid house the Fuqua Center offers a unique High Elevation House that uses customized air-handling technology to propagate and display orchids normally found only at elevations of 6,000-10,000 feet near the equator, in the Andes Cloud Forest. The 30-acre Atlanta Botanical Garden also offers an unusual elevated trail, the $55 million donor-funded Kendeda Canopy Walk, which allows visitors to stroll 40-feet off the ground amidst mature trees, the only feature of its kind in an American botanical garden.

On the list of Americans who own the most land, media mogul Ted Turner has been No. 1 or No. 2 for much of the last couple decades. His two-million acres (more than three times the size of the entire state of Rhode Island) are primarily ranches in the western U.S. To put these lands to work, Turner has become the world’s largest fosterer of bison. One out of every nine bison living today wanders on his land. Largely on his own, Turner has created a thriving national market for bison meat, sold at groceries like Whole Foods and at his Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain. Bison is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein than beef, and the hardy animals require much less husbandry. And keeping them afield has been a highly effective way of maintaining scenic Western lands in fruitful use.

Turner also opens his ranches every year to hunters willing to pay approximately $12,000 each to stalk trophy elk, and he has a fishing program on some properties too. Along with his environmental businesses, Turner’s philanthropy has frequently focused on balancing economic usages of nature with conservation (as in his giving to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition). It is estimated that Turner has so far spent more than $1.5 billion on nature philanthropy. In 1997 he created the Turner Endangered Species Fund to protect imperiled species and habitat on his own land, and to “bring the role of private lands to the forefront of ecological conservation.” Its current projects focus on nine creatures: Aplomado falcon, black-footed ferret, Bolson tortoise, Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican wolf, prairie dogs, red-cockaded woodpecker, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, and Westslope cutthroat trout.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation established its American Land Conservation Program in the late 1980s and then spent more than $400 million to conserve 190 different pieces of land—like 375,000 acres in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, and 37,000 acres adjacent to the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. The Mellon Foundation donated $10 million to the Nature Conservancy purchase which created Gorges State Park in North Carolina (see 1999 entry). All told, the $2 billion foundation has funded the conservation of more than two million acres of American land, located in all 50 states.

  • From Sea to Shining Sea: Richard King Mellon Foundation American Land Conservation Program 1988-2002 (Mellon Foundation, 2002)

Wisconsin industrialist Terry Kohler and his wife Mary are both nature lovers and pilots, so when their governor and friend Tommy Thompson called them to ask if they would help the state Department of Natural Resources with a project to reintroduce the endangered trumpeter swan to the eastern U.S., they quickly agreed. They flew their company’s business jet to Alaska and picked up a clutch of eggs removed from the nests of remaining wild trumpeters (the largest waterfowl on earth, with a wingspan exceeding eight feet). These were whisked to the Milwaukee County Zoo for a captive breeding program, and the deed was repeated every spring for years, eventually resulting in the successful reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the midwestern flyway. After being absent for a century, there are now more than 5,000 of these huge native birds migrating in this central corridor.

The year after their first trumpeter-egg trip, the president of the International Crane Foundation asked them to undertake a similar trip to bring down precious whooping crane eggs from a different part of Alaska for a similar captive-breeding program. Whoopers were down to just two dozen birds in existence at one point, and this effort increased their numbers to several hundred, though many risks to the bird remain. Released captive-raised birds had to be taught to migrate from the refuges in Wisconsin where they were reintroduced—which was eventually done, at Terry Kohler’s suggestion, by leading them south with ultra-light airplanes. Kohler also created special controlled-temperature incubators in which substantial numbers of crane and trumpeter swan eggs could be safely flown long distances.

Other private donors were also crucial to these programs. The cost of rearing and releasing one whooping crane is estimated to be more than $100,000, all told. A majority of the budget of crucial groups like the Trumpeter Swan Recovery Project and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has come from donations. In Louisiana, where the latest important efforts to preserve whoopers are centered, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has requested several million dollars from private individuals and companies to support a 15-year project.

In addition to offering in-kind assistance in the form of many hundreds of hours of jet, propeller plane, and helicopter transport and aerial surveying over three decades, the Kohlers also became major donors to the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (which buys critical habitat, among other contributions), and other avian conservation groups. They contributed as well to efforts to protect the threatened Siberian crane. While transporting eggs around the globe, one of Kohler’s planes became the first private jet to cross Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

When wolves were first reintroduced to the greater Yellowstone region, Hank Fischer, the regional director of Defenders of Wildlife, set up a meeting with 20 local livestock producers to discuss their concerns over the new presence of predators. “It’s easy to be a wolf lover. It doesn’t cost anything,” stated one rancher. “It’s the people who own livestock who end up paying for wolves.” That got Fischer and his organization thinking, and by 1987 Defenders had devised a wolf compensation fund to pay livestock owners the market value of animals killed by wolves. “It’s not our intent for this restoration to occur at the expense of livestock producers. Our goal is to have wolf supporters take responsibility for the wolf’s indiscretions,” explained Fischer. Over the next 23 years the fund paid out more than $1.4 million for animal losses, using private funds donated for the purpose. Another fund was established to reward ranchers willing to allow wolves to breed on their property. Defenders established a Livestock Producer’s Advisory Council to keep communication open and routinely adapt its programs to changing conditions.

In 1997, Defenders of Wildlife assumed responsibility for a similar program to compensate local residents for losses due to grizzly bears. In 2000, the Bailey Wildlife Foundation make a large contribution that allowed expansion of the wolf and grizzly compensation trusts that had previously been funded through small donations, including creation of a Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund that helps local landowners avoid wolf and grizzly conflicts in the first place—by buying them electric fencing, for instance. A major project was launched in Idaho to give sheep ranchers tools (like guard dogs, fencing, and range riders) to avoid predator losses in the Sawtooth Wilderness. More than a million dollars of philanthropic money has been spent on these preventive measures. Both the loss-compensation fund and the preventive assistance were later extended to southwestern states when wolves started appearing in that area.

In 2011, the Defenders compensation fund for wolves came to an end after the western states established their own state-wide mechanisms to pay for animal losses to wild predators (which Defenders helped set up and initially fund with donated private money). The nonprofit continues to fund conflict-prevention programs across the West, and it still operates the Grizzly Compensation Trust. In 2010 the organization, along with other charities like the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, launched pilot programs to compensate Floridians who lose animals due to the revival of the Florida panther—which is in the midst of rebounding from as few as 12-20 animals left in the wild to 100-200 today. By taking the economic sting out of predator recovery, these efforts are easing the coexistence of wildlife and nearby residents.

Silicon Valley pioneer David Packard had two daughters who studied marine biology, and they saw to it that an aquarium celebrating and studying the marine life of Monterey Bay became a reality. The Packards gave a one-time personal gift of $55 million for construction, with the condition that the aquarium be economically self-sustaining after opening. An old cannery in Pacific Grove was selected as the site, and Julie Packard became executive director. Displays focus on the species existing in the Pacific waters just outside the facility’s doors. Strong local support for the aquarium has translated into 45 percent of residents of the Monterey Peninsula becoming members—the core of more than 107,000 enrollees, the largest aquarium membership in the world. Today, the Monterey Bay Aquarium attracts more than 2 million visitors each year, and has a $65 million annual budget.

In 1983, a group of flyfishers calling themselves Oregon Trout started working for new water laws that would allow fishermen to buy a right to water and then keep it in a stream. Traditional water law was premised on the idea that if flowing water reaches your property first, you get first rights, but that to keep your rights you must use the water or the next guy can step up. This, of course, destroys incentives for conservation. In 1987 the group got Oregon law amended. Then in 1993, funding from the Northwest Area Foundation allowed creation of the Oregon Water Trust to apply various additional market mechanisms to water conservation. The trust buys water rights to maintain stream flows, or offers other users economic incentives to improve the efficiency of their usage or leave water in streams rather than consume it. This benefits fish and other downstream users who would otherwise come up short.

By 2002, the trust was operating in six major watersheds and completing 80 projects a year in 60 different streams. In 2009, it merged with Oregon Trout to become the Freshwater Trust. In 2012 the trust started a multiyear experiment in water-quality trading, signing a contract with the city of Medford to help it meet expensive water-quality requirements by undertaking cost-effective streambank restorations. The successes of this group in Oregon have spawned similar organizations in other states across the country.

Land trusts, or conservancies, are private nonprofits that protect land directly by owning it. Though their roots go back to the 1890s, in the latest generation land trusts have become one of the fastest growing and most successful elements of environmental conservation in the U.S. The grandaddy of land trusts is the Nature Conservancy (see 1951 entry), but there are others operating on a national level, like the American Farmland Trust, the Wetlands America Trust affiliated with Ducks Unlimited (see 1930 entry), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and trusts with specialized missions like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Civil War Trust.

In 1982 the Land Trust Alliance, a 501c3, was created to help trusts consult and coordinate with each other. In addition, the Alliance conducts periodic censuses of the field. The latest census, funded by ExxonMobil Corporation and documenting groups in existence as of 2015, shows explosive growth of this voluntary mechanism for conserving the outdoors. Land trusts had 4.6 million dues-paying members, plus 224,000 volunteers, and they were conserving 56 million acres (a leap upward from 24 million acres in 2000). Their lands were either purchased with donated money, or protected by conservation easements offered by owners. There were close to 2,000 different land trusts active across the United States, a majority of them staffed as all-volunteer efforts, and all but a dozen or so locally operated rather than national.

Land trusts are nonconfrontational and apolitical, relying on voluntary transactions by willing landowners. In this they differ from “land-advocacy” groups (for instance, the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club) that primarily lobby the government or litigate to regulate or purchase land. In the words of former Sierra Club director Michael Fischer, land trusts use love of the land, not anger at its despoliation, as their principal motivating force.

As far back as the 1930s, pioneer conservationists like Aldo Leopold argued that in a country like the U.S. built around private property and markets, it is important to find ways to harness those mechanisms to work productively for environmental quality. In 1980, a group of economists trained in the Chicago school of economics founded the Bozeman, Montana, organization now known as the Property and Environment Research Center. “We asked ourselves: If markets can produce bread and cars and make them available for everyone, why can’t they produce environmental protection?” says PERC president Terry Anderson, who also teaches at Stanford University. “Most Americans operate under the assumption that if we have economic growth, we destroy the environment, and if we preserve the environment we destroy economic growth. We at PERC don’t see that conflict.” PERC accepts no government money and little corporate funding, relying on private giving for its annual support. The organization’s 1991 book Free Market Environmentalism helped spark new thinking on how property rights and economic incentives can be used to encourage individuals to be better stewards of land, water, animals, and other natural resources.

Since this beginning, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, which hired the first Ph.D. economist to work full-time at an environmental organization, have become adept at employing economic tools for ecological benefit. In 1995 EDF launched the “safe-harbor” mechanism that allows economic use of private land where endangered species are present, so long as a certain level of habitat protection is provided. Market-based approaches have also been folded into acid-rain regulation, efforts to restrain packaging waste, fishing regulation based on catch shares (see 2003 entry), Western water law, pollution auctions, and other places.

Starting in the 1960s, Central Park began a long decline. Once-emerald lawns were trampled to bare dirt. Ineffective policing and homeless policies allowed vagrants and gangs to take over. Graffiti was everywhere. New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis and restrictive public-employee union rules cut routine maintenance, and the park’s landmarks were neglected and vandalized. Many thought the park was beyond rescue. Along came Richard Gilder, the founder of a brokerage firm and a leading philanthropist in New York City. “I could see the dreadful condition of the park.” To do something—anything—Gilder teamed up with hedge-fund titan George Soros. “This was my first attempt at philanthropy,” Soros later remembered. “Our outlook on life is quite different. He’s a libertarian, and I’m much more of a government-interference type. Nevertheless, we got on very well.” A 1976 study the two men commissioned called for a private board and modern management to revive the park. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Ed Koch took an interest in this citizen activism and the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy was born in 1980 to improve a public asset with private organization and resources. Its central insight, according to director Elizabeth Rogers, was that “You don’t throw money at the problem, you throw management.”

The Central Park Conservancy resodded the Sheep Meadow and rebuilt crumbling Belvedere Castle. With each successful project, the public could see that the conservancy was working, and the nonprofit gradually took the reins from the city parks department, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in citizen donations (crowned by a 2013 gift of $100 million from financier John Paulson). Since 1998 the conservancy has had a long-term contract with the city to manage the park. Central Park currently attracts 42 million visitors annually, up from 12 million in the early 1980s, and crime has fallen by more than 90 percent. The conservancy now provides 85 percent of the park’s $45 million budget, and employs 90 percent of the park’s maintenance staff. Private money and private management have made Central Park a jewel, and created a model that spread quickly to other places. “Dick Gilder made it possible for citizens to get involved in the life of public parks,” says Adrian Benepe of the Trust for Public Land.

The successes of the Central Park Conservancy inspired dozens of similar efforts in other cities across the country. Piedmont Park in Atlanta, St. Louis’s Forest Park, Shelby Farms in Memphis, and strings of parks in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Buffalo, and other places were modeled directly on the Central Park example, not to mention spinoffs launched in New York City itself to create the High Line and improve Battery, Prospect, and other parks. Ironically, the original conservancy was imperiled when Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and threatened to siphon resources out of the independent park conservancies and redirect them to other locations under city control. To stay on top of its many demands, the conservancy in 2016 launched a 10-year fundraising campaign to raise an extra $300 million for park improvements and maintenance. One of the first responses was a $25 million gift from the Thompson Family Foundation.

Montana Land Reliance was founded in 1978 by Barbara Rusmore and Christina Torgrimson, who wanted to preserve Montana’s beautiful outdoor scenery and “provide permanent protection for private lands that are significant for agricultural production, forest resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and open space.” The John Hay Whitney Foundation provided a startup grant, and the group made the most of its resources by becoming one of the aggressive early users of the then-brand-new concept of “conservation easements”—which protect land without requiring it to be purchased from the owner.

Easements can be purchased with money provided by donors (for far less than the cost of buying the land), or gifted by public-spirited landowners. In either case the property remains on the tax rolls, while the owner gets a partial credit. Easements are extremely flexible. On a working farm an easement might forbid housing subdivisions, but allow any desired agricultural structures to be built. An easement on property containing a rare plant or animal might sign away all development rights on the areas it occupies. Conservation easements can be applied to just a portion of a property, or all of it. Each agreement is crafted to meet the particular needs of the landowner while respecting the conservation goal for that land.

Land Reliance didn’t buy up land and then sell it to the government, like some land trusts. Rusmore and Torgrimson wanted the preserved plots to remain in private hands—which helped win over local landowners who were skeptical of government involvement in their areas, and local officials who didn’t want too much land leaving the tax rolls. Relying 100 percent on easements as their conservation tool, MLR soon built a strong base of support from Montana landowners.

Wheat farms and ranches had historic as well as farming and ecological value that made them one focus of the group. MLR also put a great deal of effort into encouraging stewardship of the private property surrounding Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park—land which is important to wildlife, tourism, and state beauty. Today, Montana Land Reliance is a model statewide land trust, and the voluntary conservation easements the nonprofit has acquired from private landowners protect 907,425 acres of ecologically, agriculturally, and historically important land, plus 1,577 miles of stream frontage. These include nearly 500,000 acres of elk habitat, 10,000 acres of wetlands, the watersheds supporting Montana’s now-thriving trout fishery, and more.

The bluebird, an American favorite, faced disaster when the non-native house sparrow took over much of its habitat. Both birds are cavity nesters, and the sparrows will often kill bluebirds and destroy their eggs to occupy desirable spots. In 1976, bluebird enthusiast Larry Zeleny published a book entitled The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight For Survival, and the next year he placed an article in National Geographic pointing out that despite their precipitous population decline there was hope for bluebirds if only everyday landowners would take a few simple measures: put out nesting boxes with entry holes just 1½” in diameter (small enough to exclude most sparrows), and then provide a little monitoring and regular maintenance. “There is not much the average person can do to help the bald eagle or the whooping crane, but an individual can help the bluebird,” summarized ornithologist Chandler Robbins.

In 1978 bluebird lovers spontaneously organized themselves into the North American Bluebird Society, followed shortly after by 15 active state-level societies. The next year, Parade magazine printed a story for its 15 million readers called “You Can Hear the Bluebird’s Song Again.” As a result, the society received 80,000 letters requesting a copy of its brochure on how to help bluebirds. It took volunteers three months to get all those requests answered, but soon memberships were flooding in, and nesting boxes were popping up in fields and orchards across the country. The NABS history notes that “no tax money has ever been sought by the society. Funding for programs and operational expenses has come from dues, donations, and profits from the sale of bluebird-related items, along with corporate grants, awards from private foundations, and bequests.” These philanthropic efforts have had great success. To take an example from one representative state: a 1979 bird census found just 22 bluebirds in Minnesota; today the state population is estimated at 25,000.

Almost exactly midway between Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina is a 24,000-acre beachfront refuge and resting spot considered one of the best in North America—but for transient birds rather than humans. The Yawkey Wildlife Center is a mix of marsh, pine forest, and beach that supports 200 species of birds, rivaling almost any spot in North America for its variety and rarity of migrating and resident species. An unusual number of raptors—hawks, ospreys, peregrine falcons, golden and bald eagles—frequent the area to nest, feed, or recuperate during migration. The undisturbed beaches provide protected feeding and resting areas for the brown pelican, least terns, the threatened piping plover, and many other sea birds, as well as excellent egg-laying locations for the threatened loggerhead turtle. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker also inhabits the longleaf pine uplands of the preserve.

Considered a major gift to U.S. wildlife conservation, the center was willed to the people of the state of South Carolina in 1976, along with an endowment to support its upkeep and improvement, by the late Tom Yawkey, longtime owner of the Boston Red Sox. He had hunted and fished the land throughout his life, but in the middle of the twentieth century he became concerned that the waterfowl population was declining. Yawkey stopped hunting the birds and started manipulating the marshes on his property to produce more of their main food sources. It worked. Today a quarter of a million birds live on the property every spring.

In 1918 Wallace Pratt became the first geologist to work for Humble Oil (forerunner to ExxonMobil). He and several colleagues created scientific ways to find oil with less guesswork, and he eventually became known as America’s most distinguished petroleum scientist. In 1921, Pratt was in Texas purchasing land leases for Humble. Exploring McKittrick Canyon near Pecos he saw streams, stunning waterfalls, and grand trees, and understood why the locals had told him it was the most beautiful place in the state. The ranch enveloping the canyon was useless for oil, but when it later came up for sale, Pratt and some partners bought it because of the land’s natural beauty and history (it was the historic refuge of the Mescalero Apaches and other residents going back thousands of years).

By 1930 Pratt had bought out his partners. Meanwhile, local judge and oil man J. C. Hunter had been purchasing surrounding lands, creating the 70,000-acre Guadalupe Mountain Ranch where he raised sheep and goats. He too appreciated the area’s beauty, and he protected fragile habitats and supported efforts to create a park in the region. After Hunter died his son kept buying land and pushing for park status, as did Pratt.

In 1945 Pratt moved his residence to the McKittrick Canyon land, where he studied its geology—it was a fossilized reef. In 1959, Pratt offered his land to the National Park Service. Several years later the Hunter lands were added to the property, and in 1972 the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the core of which was the McKittrick Canyon property, opened to the public.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. When it spots prey with its piercing eyesight, it shrieks down out of the sky at more than 200 miles an hour. Yet in 1970, the U.S. peregrine falcon was nearly as dead as the dodo. In the lower 48 states there were only 39 known breeding pairs left. The bird’s recovery since then is one of the dramatic ecological success stories of our times, and philanthropy is a star player.

Once measures had been taken to curb overuse of pesticides that were weakening falcon eggshells, the government launched efforts to repopulate the bird. They failed. Enter Tom Cade. When Cornell University offered him a job at its famed ornithological lab, he agreed—on condition that it support his efforts to test ideas for restoring the peregrine. A $125,000 grant from IBM was earmarked for the purpose. Then other donations began pouring in, including many small ones from individuals who, like Cade, had taken up the sport of falconry.

Instead of trying to breed captured birds, as the government had, Cade’s philanthropic project hand-reared hatchlings and kept them in captivity for use as breeders, starting in 1971. Within a few years, the Cornell group was releasing into the wild the first of 4,000 young birds, and discovering how to keep them alive until they learned to hunt on their own. The researchers concluded, counterintuitively, that one of the best places for artificially incubated peregrines to make the leap back into the wild was the downtown regions of major cities. Skyscrapers and bridges served as cliff-like roosting and nesting places, free from the owls and eagles that were devouring juvenile falcons released into the wilderness. Urban pigeons were ideal food sources for the young hunters.

Since 1984, the Peregrine Fund has been located on a bluff near Boise, Idaho. Throughout its history, it has been supported by thousands of private donations that cover operating costs, plus an endowment given by donors such as Lee Bass, Roy Disney, Julie Wrigley, and Hank Paulson. Thanks to its efforts, a creature that was nearly extinct now breeds naturally and thrives in at least 40 states across the U.S. The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999. More recently, the Peregrine Fund has produced chicks to help restore the California condor to the Grand Canyon, the Aplomado falcon to the Southwest, the Harpy eagle to Central America, and many other birds to their respective homelands.

Katharine Ordway’s father took a struggling company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing and turned it into 3M. She eventually inherited part of his fortune, and used it to buy and protect swathes of the subtly lovely prairies of the American Midwest, which she loved for their beautiful wildflowers and connection to the state’s pioneer history. Ordway started in 1970 in her own backyard of Minnesota. Working with the Nature Conservancy, she assembled several thousand acres of Minnesota prairie into the Ordway, Wahpeton, Chippewa, and Santee preserves. Next, Ordway financed purchases of exemplary sections of remaining prairie in other parts of the Great Plains—in South Dakota, in Missouri, and in Kansas where she bought the large, pristine Konza prairie. The vast majority of the Konza reserve, in the Flint Hills of the eastern part of the state, is steeply sloped grassland with shallow soils unsuitable for cultivation, so it has never been plowed and retains its native characteristics, making it one of the largest remaining undisturbed tallgrass prairies in North America.

After her death in 1979, Ordway left her remaining money to a foundation with instructions to the family members and allies she put in charge to expend all the funds quickly. The foundation spent more than $40 million in less than five years to buy additional prairie land, including 54,000 acres in the Niobrara Valley of Nebraska. These prairie lands are actively managed (as most wild lands need to be today). The Ordway and Konza preserves, for instance, are regularly burned (as would have happened naturally in the times before wildfires were suppressed) to prevent the grassland from growing into forest. Ordway’s collective gifts made her one of America’s most important private conservationists.

Francis Beidler was a Chicago businessman who owned the Santee River Cypress Company. By 1905 he had stopped timbering in swamps he possessed near Charleston, South Carolina, having decided it wasn’t cost-effective to pull logs out of the inaccessible waterlogged lands. In addition, one of those tracts, the Four Holes Swamp, was full of ancient trees as much as 1,000 years old, making it one of the few areas in the state that remained just as it had been when the original European settlers arrived. It was against Beidler’s historic and conserving instincts to cut this forest, and his descendants also decided not to. Indeed, they fought heated battles with the federal government, which wanted to use the land during FDR’s administration.

In the 1960s, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society joined together and launched a campaign that raised $1.5 million in donations to buy 3,400 acres of the Four Holes Swamp, which they renamed the Francis Beidler Forest. In 2003, the two organizations combined forces again to expand the tract. Today, it is the world’s biggest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest—a 12,500-acre National Natural Landmark that harbors, among other things, one of the oldest bald cypress trees in the world.

The Omaha Zoo was a sleepy little city-run affair, like hundreds of others, when in 1963 the widow of the publisher of the local newspaper gave $750,000 to improve the facilities as a memorial to her husband Henry Doorly. Within two years a nonprofit society had organized itself to plan, expand, operate, and maintain the zoo in the future. The Doorly gift sparked a steady string of additional major gifts—from Claire Hubbard, Ernst Lied, Eugene Eppley, Edward Owen, Bill and Berniece Grewcock, Walter and Suzanne Scott, and others. The result is a triumph of philanthropy. Measured as a combination of animals, species, and acreage, the Doorly Zoo has grown into the largest in the world, and, more importantly, one of the most beloved. It features the world’s largest indoor desert, largest indoor swamp, and largest nocturnal exhibit, plus the nation’s largest indoor rainforest—all richly stocked with plants and animals easily accessible to visitors. It also hosts the largest cat complex in North America, and dramatic orangutan and gorilla living spaces. Users of the popular TripAdvisor website have rated the Henry Doorly as America’s best zoo.

Mary Wharton completed a doctorate in botany at the University of Michigan, then moved to Kentucky to put her knowledge to work near her family home. She led the Georgetown College biology department for almost 30 years, wrote several books on Kentucky plants, and even discovered several new species. But perhaps her finest achievement was in personally assembling a nature sanctuary in Fayette County, which she called Floracliff and built up through numerous purchases over the course of her life, starting in 1958. The property includes Elk Lick Falls, a 61-foot waterfall that is one of the largest surface deposits in the U.S. of travertine (a form of limestone made by mineral springs). It also hosts wildflowers, rare plants, and trees hundreds of years old. By the time Wharton was finished, Floracliff included nearly 300 acres and had a nonprofit to oversee it, and she left an $800,000 endowment when she died in 1991. In 1996 Floracliff became a Kentucky state nature preserve. Six years later one of Wharton’s Georgetown College colleagues left a bequest to add a nature center, which was finished in 2010.

In the 1940s, Laurance Rockefeller, grandson of the famous scion, began exploring the Caribbean islands with his wife, Mary, in their boat Dauntless. St. John was one of three islands the United States had purchased from Denmark during World War I to preclude a German submarine base there. The Rockefellers found it lovely and undeveloped. Laurance began buying acreage with two goals in mind: to establish a resort hotel in Caneel Bay as a business proposition, and to purchase land he could eventually donate for a national park. He acquired most of the island, about 5,000 acres, using the same nonprofit entity his father employed to buy private land for transfer to the Grand Teton park (see 1949 entry), and eventually donated this territory to the nation. In 1956, on the very same day they opened for business their Caneel Bay resort, designed to blend into the landscape on the western edge of the island, Laurance and Mary attended the dedication of Virgin Islands National Park, covering most of the rest of St. John.

  • Tom Butler, Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition (Earth Aware, 2008)

In the half-century or so after the civil war, a “humane” movement grew up which encouraged kindness to animals, compassion for humans, and a reverence for life. Albert Schweitzer’s 1952 Nobel Prize was a culmination of this popular thinking. Two years after that ceremony, the Humane Society of the U.S. was formed specifically to reduce cruelty to animals. The organization’s first priority was humane slaughtering of food animals. The founding principles of the society “do not consider the utilization of animals for food to be either immoral or inappropriate,” explained a former head of the group, but the organization “opposes and seeks to prevent all use or exploitation of animals that causes pain, suffering, or fear.” Supported entirely by member donations and philanthropic gifts, the Humane Society of the United States is today the largest animal protection organization in the country, with a $174 million budget.

  • Humane Society of the United States,
  • Bernard Unti, Protecting All Animals (Humane Society of the United States, 2004)

In the 1940s and ’50s, as sporting game like deer, waterfowl, and turkeys became rare amid post-war hunting and building booms, John Olin had an idea. Wildlife could be replenished through scientific improvement of habitat, stocking of creatures bred in captivity, and relocation of seed animals captured elsewhere. And this needn’t wait on state action—it could be done right away by private landowners. Both government wildlife agencies and hunters were dubious, thinking such efforts sounded artificial, and unlikely to make much difference. But Olin was not only a passionate lover of hunting himself but also a determined man with extensive personal resources. He had built a range of Olin enterprises into a juggernaut with 40,000 employees and strong revenues, and after years of financial support for his alma mater Cornell University he enjoyed excellent connections to research expertise. Olin was also a scientist himself, with deep experience as an investigator and a couple dozen U.S. patents to his name. In addition, Olin had funded early studies on private husbandry of land and wildlife conducted by Aldo Leopold, the nation’s first professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin, who bought 120 acres of played-out land on the Wisconsin River floodplain in 1935 to test his ideas on building a conservation ethic among property owners (spelled out in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac).

In 1951 Olin launched his own bold conservation experiment. He purchased a farm along the Mississippi River and converted its 522 acres to food and cover plants favored by game birds. He hired a staff of trained conservationists to manage his new “preserve,” and installed a breeder and trainer of field dogs on the property. Soon his “Nilo Farms” (and companion private reserves he established in Georgia and elsewhere) were teeming with wildlife, and his Labrador retrievers and other sporting dogs were winning national field trials and sending their prize offspring around the country to generate new lines of hunting companions. “In less than a decade the Cornell-Nilo relationship has been reversed,” wrote Sports Illustrated in a cover story on this success. “Where once the university assisted John Olin in setting up his program, Olin is now assisting Cornell with valuable research and experimentation undertaken at Nilo.”

Actively managed game preserves exploded in popularity, soon numbering in the thousands as they were established in both private and public formats all across the country—most of them patterned after Nilo Farms. And wild game of all sorts made tremendous comebacks.

The Nature Conservancy has more than 1 million contributing members and is the largest environmental charity in the U.S. measured by revenue (nearly a billion dollars in 2015, mostly donations of land or cash) and assets. In addition to working with private owners to protect land in all 50 states it has also expanded to more than 35 countries overseas. The group is the national leader in popularizing conservation easements, debt-for-nature swaps, land trusts, and other voluntary and market-based techniques for preserving land. The conservancy’s success and expansion, which has put more than 120 million acres under long-term protection, stems from four factors: A commitment to practical, non-confrontational solutions. A rooting of actions in good science (the group employs hundreds of staff scientists). Creative and flexible management of lands under its protection (in some cases permitting timbering, mining, or gas and oil drilling). And assiduous, productive partnering with land owners, indigenous communities, businesses, governments, and fellow nonprofits.

Isaac Bernheim was a German immigrant to Kentucky who went to work as a peddler and eventually became a wealthy distiller. Grateful for his good fortune, he gave Bernheim Arboretum as a gift to the people of his beloved adopted state in 1929. His will stipulated that “said 14,000 acres be used for a park…to be developed and forever maintained…for the people of Kentucky, and their friends, as a place to further their love of the beautiful in nature…and as a means of strengthening their love and devotion to their state and country.” Bernheim died in 1945, and five years later his forest was opened to the public. It presently includes a research station, a visitor center, and many ecological education programs and nature studies.

Almost from the time that Yellowstone was established as our first national park, there was interest in extending its boundaries south to include the toothy Grand Teton peaks and the lovely valley and lakes that lay at their feet. But the valley had economic uses that made it harder to set aside than the surrounding mountain regions. So when Congress designated a Grand Teton National Park in 1929, the boundary stopped at the foot of the peaks. John Rockefeller Jr. had visited the Teton valley several times, including in 1924 with three of his sons and in 1926 with his wife. He noted not only that the mountains “are seen at their best from the Jackson Hole valley,” but that the valley “is the natural and necessary feeding place for the game which inhabits Yellowstone Park and the surrounding regions.” Rockefeller was disappointed to find power lines and ramshackle buildings springing up in the beautiful area along the foot of the mountains, so he empowered local agents to begin buying up property (anonymously) from willing sellers in the valley. He spent $18 million to purchase and maintain tens of thousands of acres which he finally donated to the Park Service in 1949. A newly expanded 310,000 acre Grand Teton National Park was signed into law in 1950, encompassing all the large alpine lakes and crucial parts of the Snake River valley.

In 2008, a final 1,100 acres of Rockefeller-owned land bordering Phelps Lake was opened to the public. The pristine Laurance Rockefeller Preserve includes an impressive visitor center and hiking-trail network funded by more than $20 million of donations from this third generation of the philanthropic family. Park officials estimate the Phelps Lake land alone to be worth $160 million, making this one of the most valuable gifts in the history of our park system.

Out of the bank he established in Pittsburgh in 1869, Thomas Mellon left behind both a fortune and a string of descendants who variously increased those funds and gave them away to a wide range of philanthropic projects—prominently including land conservation. Among their other accomplishments in nature giving, former National Park Service historian Barry Mackintosh has noted that, “after the Rockefellers, the Mellon family has contributed most generously to the growth of the national park system.” For instance, various Mellon family foundations funded shoreline surveys along our Great Lakes and sea coasts, over a period of decades starting in 1947. These led to the creation of several national seashores and lakeshores. Mellon money purchased much of the land for the Cape Hatteras and Cumberland Island National Seashores. It funded acquisition of the Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland. And family members helped preserve Rocky Mountain National Park and Redwood National Park. They also landscaped Lafayette Park across from the White House.

Lloyd Noble was an Oklahoman who taught in rural schools before buying an oil-drilling rig with a loan from his mother. In 1926 he struck gold—or its liquid equivalent—and became a very wealthy man. As he prospered, however, his agricultural neighbors suffered. The Dust Bowl was laying waste to his state, and driving many of its small farmers California-ward. A firm believer in the importance of land ownership in a free society, Noble resolved to help farmers prosper in Oklahoma. He was convinced that shortsighted tillage contributed to the widespread soil erosion and barren fields of his home state, so in 1945 he established a foundation whose central mission was to help its farmers and ranchers “practice land stewardship and resource conservation.” To this day, the foundation encourages sustainable agricultural practices by bringing current research to more than 1,700 local agriculturalists. A sample project of its 360 employees (roughly a quarter with Ph.D.s) and $1 billion of total charitable spending: developing improved perennial forage grass for livestock.

Waite Phillips was one of the progenitors of the American oil and gas business, building Phillips Petroleum into an industry leader. He also loved the outdoors, and later in his life he and his wife gradually assembled land and built a magnificent wilderness retreat in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. Some of the land had previously been owned by legendary mountain man and explorer Lucien Maxwell, and it was rich on many levels: The Santa Fe trail ran right through it. It includes numerous high-altitude peaks as well as lovely alpine flats. Artifacts document centuries of use by Apache and Ute Indians. There are tracks that were left by T-Rex wanderers in prehistoric times. Interesting abandoned mines riddle the hillsides.

As he aged, Waite Phillips enjoyed sharing his escape with others. At one point he invited a group of Boy Scouts to spend some time at the ranch, and he was struck by the deep impression made on the boys by their exposure to American wilderness. In 1938 he decided to donate 38,000 acres from his spread so the Boy Scouts of America could create an active outdoor program on it for scouts from all across America. He later expanded the gift to cover 140,000 acres of mountainside. He also donated one of America’s early skyscrapers, the Philtower in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so its rents could be used to subsidize operation of the property—which became known as the Philmont Scout Ranch.

The BSA has made excellent use of the property. Every year, more than 23,000 Boy Scouts embark on week- or 12-day-long high-adventure backpacking treks across the spread. They carry all their supplies on their backs, sleep outdoors, climb peaks, shoot and fish, practice cowboy skills, and enjoy the dramatic topography and animal life. The trips emphasize self-sufficiency and stamina under challenging conditions, and several generations of Boy Scouts have now been deeply influenced by treks across this wild land. Many astronauts, politicians, soldiers, and business leaders report that their Philmont sojourn taught them independence, respect for the outdoors, and a love of adventure.

In 1921, an article was published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects proposing a series of trail-connected camps along the Appalachian Mountains. Very soon, volunteer crews of hikers were constructing a first segment of the proposed New England-to-Georgia footpath on their own, starting in Harriman-Bear Mountain State Park in New York. A small core of about 200 activists began to select and blaze routes, set standards, establish more than 30 local clubs to oversee local segments, negotiate with private landowners and government agencies over rights of way, and publish maps and guidebooks. By 1937 a continuous Appalachian Trail was open, running through 2,000 miles of wild land from Georgia’s Mount Oglethorpe to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. Not until the end of the 1960s did the overseeing nonprofit have any paid employees. To this day, local volunteers continue to handle most of the club duties and trail upkeep.

Hawk Mountain is regularly mistaken for a public park, whereas it’s actually a classic example of a concerned citizen taking action on her own. A series of ridges in the eastern Appalachians of Pennsylvania, Hawk Mountain enjoys thermal currents that draw thousands of migrating birds every year, particularly raptors. But in the early 1930s it became a shooting range, as the Pennsylvania Game Commission began paying $5 for every goshawk killed, in an attempt to protect chicken farmers. Bounty shooters killed hundreds of hawks as they passed lookouts at eye-level in great concentrated streams. Philanthropist Rosalie Edge saw photos of the carnage, tried in frustration to find allies who would help stop it, and eventually acquired most of the mountain herself in 1934. She forbade bounty hunting on her 1,400 acres. Edge brought in wardens and opened Hawk Mountain to the public the next year as a bird-watcher’s paradise. The world’s first refuge for birds of prey, Hawk Mountain today remains the oldest and largest member-supported raptor-conservation organization in the world. It now extends over 2,600 acres, and visitors travel from far away to see its wonders. In addition to its bird viewing there are trails, a garden, a visitor center, a facility for conservation training, and a multimillion-dollar research program on raptors.

In the early 1920s, Wickliffe Rose of the Rockefeller Foundation began conversations with the director of the U.S. Marine Biological Laboratory about the need for better understanding of the oceans. They launched a committee which eventually proposed creating a well-equipped institution on the U.S. east coast to conduct oceanographic research. The Rockefeller Foundation provided $1 million for construction, boats, equipment, and upkeep of a center located at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, along with a $1-million endowment, and $500,000 for ten years of summertime operating expenses.

By the early 2000s, there were over 1,000 researchers, ships’ crew, and support staff employed at Woods Hole, and philanthropy continued to be relied on to launch extensions of the federal facility’s programs. When fish ecologist Simon Thorrold developed doubts about the common way of reducing overfishing of depleted species—establishing large Marine Protected Areas where harvesting is banned until the fish population grows back—he and his colleagues developed a way to tag fish with harmless chemical signatures so the population dynamics and migrations of fish could be studied in detail. Woods Hole approached the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, which had been associated with marine philanthropy since their founding of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (see 1984 entry), with a request to fund the project. The Packard Foundation provided a half-million dollars starting in 2007. Woods Hole’s new Fish Ecology Laboratory was born.

Experience from the last 85 years shows that people who stalk and harvest animals are often the best at saving them. The Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s decimated North American populations of ducks and other waterfowl. Federal wildlife refuges and the recycling of “duck stamp” revenues back into habitat maintenance proved inadequate. A history entitled The Ducks Came Back describes how much this disturbed sportsmen: “Hunters all over the United States were putting their fowling pieces in mothballs or attempting to sell them…. It just isn’t worthwhile to go duck hunting these days—having to get up early in the morning or sit out in hard weather for a shot or two all day. I wouldn’t want my son to pursue a sport that I love so well that has sunk to such a low level.” Attendees at the American Game Association conference in 1935 bandied about a desperate proposal to ban all duck hunting for one year.

Instead, sportsmen went to work. That same year, the first international wild duck census was conducted by the More Game Birds in America Foundation, which had been formed in 1930 to rally hunters behind efforts to restore habitat. In 1937, the work of More Game Birds evolved into the new group Ducks Unlimited. The organization launched hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marsh and breeding-ground restorations, and created popular publications, local chapters, and regular meetings to unite wildfowlers from across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico behind voluntary conservation efforts. Today, Ducks Unlimited is the world’s largest and most effective private waterfowl conservation organization, with 750,000 dues-paying members and partnerships with landowners, companies, agencies, scientific organizations, and private individuals that have allowed it to directly conserve 13.1 million acres of habitat, while influencing the management of another 100 million acres. One of its advantages over government agencies is its ability to work simultaneously in the three countries of North America, each of which is important in the lifecycle of migrating birds.

There are many other so-called “hook and bullet” conservation groups backed by hunters and fishermen that have been instrumental in saving and reviving wildlife in similar ways. The recovery of the wild turkey, which nearly disappeared from America, was funded by millions of dollars of donations and fees paid by hunters. For instance, the National Wild Turkey Federation and its partners have spent more than $412 million since the group’s founding in 1973 to conserve more than 17 million acres of turkey habitat, powering the recovery of this iconic bird to almost all of its historic range. A remnant of just 30,000 creatures has now grown to more than 7 million wild turkeys—marking one of the greatest wildlife recoveries in American history. Quail, grouse, pheasants, songbirds, and deer have benefitted in parallel as the 250,000-member group has planted cover and food, transplanted birds, consulted with farmers and corporations, hired scientists, and otherwise spent donated funds to make lands more animal-friendly. (See 1951 entry on John Olin for more on this topic.)

Mount Katahdin, at 5,269 feet, is the highest peak in Maine and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The surrounding area features hundreds of lakes, streams, and waterfalls, wildlife are abundant, and prominent features of Ice Age glaciation are on display. While he was governor of Maine from 1921 to 1925, Percival Baxter tried to persuade legislators to conserve Katahdin. He failed. After leaving office, Baxter put his money where his mouth was—buying the peak and 6,000 surrounding acres in 1930, then making them a gift to the people of his state. Over the next 32 years he continued to purchase additional parcels, assembling what is now a state park of 210,000 acres, containing 40 peaks besides Katahdin. Baxter also left a trust fund of $7 million to ensure there would be money to manage the park properly without pressing on Maine taxpayers. Today about 75 percent of the Baxter State Park operates as a wildlife sanctuary, 53,000 acres are open to hunting and trapping, there are 215 miles of popular trails, and ten campgrounds. Baxter designated 30,000 acres to be managed as a showplace for timbering and sound commercial forestry. What the state refused to do, private initiative accomplished to great public benefit. In Baxter’s words, “Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”

John Rockefeller Jr. had already catalyzed creation of a national park at Acadia in Maine, and set events in motion for another at Grand Teton in Wyoming, when in 1928 he offered $5 million (about half the total needed) to purchase land for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that now straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. With additional contributions from the two states, the cities of Asheville and Knoxville, $2 million from the federal government, and contributions from thousands of private citizens, 6,600 separate plots were painstakingly assembled, and about a decade later the National Park opened. Today it includes 700 miles of fishable streams, 800 miles of trails including a long section of the Appalachian Trail, abundant wildlife, magnificent trees like a yellow buckeye more than 19 feet in circumference, and artifacts of pioneer life. It is America’s most visited national park, with more than 9 million annual guests.

  • Michael Frome, Strangers in High Places: The Story of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (University of Tennessee Press, 1966)

Maine’s Acadia National Park mixes ocean, forest, and mountains in combinations of legendary beauty. It is a product of the tenacity of one George Dorr, a Bostonian with an inherited textile fortune who began acquiring land in the area after establishing a home on Mount Desert Island (on which most of the park is located). In 1901, Dorr was contacted by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, whose son had started the first land trust in America a decade earlier (see 1890 entry). Eliot was promoting another private land trust, to protect this scenic section of Maine coast. Dorr soon found himself at the head of the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. He donated tracts of his own land, and tirelessly encouraged his neighbors to donate others. In 1908, he and another trustee bought the summit of Cadillac Mountain. By 1913, the “reservation” totaled over 5,000 acres. (Dorr meanwhile had to battle attempts by the state government to hamstring his group by revoking its nonprofit status.) In 1919 the property became Lafayette National Park—the first in the East, and the first created from privately donated lands. Dorr continued to expand and improve the park, which was renamed Acadia in 1929. Dorr’s friend and neighbor John Rockefeller Jr. donated 10,700 acres to the property, and spent $3.5 million of his own money to create an immaculate network of 45 miles of horse-drawn carriage road, including 17 granite bridges, that shows the island at its best. It is still used today for hiking and biking. Acadia National Park currently covers 47,000 acres, and more than 2 million Americans enjoy its rugged beauty every year.

Stephen Mather was the first director of the National Park Service, but he was much more than a bureaucrat. His abilities as a manager and his personal donations as a private citizen were his greatest contributions to nature conservation, not least in creating the Park Service itself. An outdoorsman from an early age, Mather always found time to climb mountains and hike canyons no matter how busy he got as a businessman (he made a fortune selling borax) or philanthropist. He was not only interested in protecting scenic resources and natural areas, but devoted to encouraging new transportation methods that would allow Americans to reach and enjoy them. By 1915, he had gotten a group together to buy the Tioga Road to Yosemite for $15,500 and donate it to Yosemite National Park. In 1915, Mather accepted a position as assistant secretary of the interior in Washington, D.C., and when the National Park Service was created in 1917 he was appointed its first director.

Mather wished to have the parks supported by avid users. This led him to focus on access and programming. In 1916 he convinced several railroad companies to join him in donating $48,000 to publicize the national parks. He got automobile companies to “democratize” parks by supporting the construction of roads to get a broader cross-section of Americans into them. He spent thousands from his own pocket to improve park access, and created the first visitor centers, including providing $25,000 of personal funds to build the Rangers’ Club at Yosemite. Mather pushed for “nature study” and interpretation programs that would attract citizens to their parks, and invited in concessioners who could provide basic comforts. He also led and paid for trips to parks by influential people, and supplied material to the press which generated 1,050 magazine articles on parklands from 1917 to 1919 alone.

Mather continued to buy acreage and donate it to the parks, and convinced wealthy friends to do likewise. He took on talented staff and paid them himself, and professionalized the park ranger corps into one of the most competent parts of the federal work force. With this impressive start, the National Park Service went on to attract an estimated $48 billion in private preservation investment from 1916 to the present.

Joseph Battell was a Vermont newspaper publisher, and promoter of the Morgan horse. His creation of the American Morgan Horse Registry and donation of his horse farm to the national breeding program for Morgans helped save the breed. Battell was also an avid land buyer, and when he died in 1915 he left more than 30,000 acres of forest and farm to Middlebury College, of which he was a trustee. The college established a summer writers’ school within the Victorian buildings at the heart of the property (which it continues to operate to this day), and sold most of the surrounding land to the U.S. Forest Service. Contrary to Battell’s hope that the tract could be preserved as “a specimen of the original Vermont forest,” the college and Forest Service saw no responsible way to maintain the property without some commercial logging.

In 1911, Battell made a separate gift to the State Forester of about 1,000 acres of wild land surrounding the third highest peak in Vermont—Camel’s Hump, which offers one of the most distinctive rocky profiles in New England and tops out at 4,083 feet. Apart from its popular hiking trails, this mountain land was left undisturbed until 1969, when it was turned into a state park with a forest reserve to surround it—now totaling 20,000 acres. The area includes a section kept in a primitive state to protect rare alpine plants and wilderness settings. A second portion is managed for timber production, wildlife and hunting, hiking, Nordic skiing, and snowmobiling. A third piece includes farms and some seasonal and permanent homes. Camel’s Hump is the only peak in Vermont of 4,000 feet or more that doesn’t have an adjoining ski resort.

The oldest surviving California sequoias are thousands of years old. Sheathed by the fogs that roll in daily from the Pacific, they reach hundreds of feet in height. Ancient specimens once grew in many northern California coastal valleys, but during the 1800s most were logged off. Having lived as a boy in Marin County, William Kent knew and loved the redwoods, and after returning to the area after making money in real estate and livestock in Chicago, he and his wife decided to buy 611 acres of one of the last uncut stands of old-growth sequoia in the Bay Area in 1905. Though located just a dozen miles north of San Francisco, the patch along Redwood Creek was hard to reach and so had been left untouched. They paid $45,000, much of it borrowed. Soon a Sausalito water company had designs on Kent’s land, which it intended to flood and use as a reservoir. It planned to wield condemnation by eminent domain to get the land, and since much of San Francisco had just burned in the fires following the 1906 earthquake, the chances of a water company winning favor in court seemed good.

In an attempt to protect the redwoods, the Kents mailed the deed for 295 acres of their land to the secretary of the interior, asking that President Roosevelt declare the donated tract a national monument, and name it Muir Woods, for conservationist John Muir. A fan of redwoods and an admirer of the Kents’ generosity, and their selflessness in refusing to have the gift named after themselves, Roosevelt acted as requested in 1908. Muir Woods became the first national protected area donated by private individuals. The Kents donated more land to the monument in 1921. Today, Muir Woods National Monument covers 554 acres, adjacent to 6,000 acres of state-protected land, and hosts more than 800,000 visitors each year.

Central New Yorker William Letchworth made a fortune in the iron business, then retired at age 48 to a property he had purchased in the spectacular deep gorge carved by the Genesee River as it snakes its way north to Lake Ontario near Rochester, New York. His retirement was a busy one—he poured himself into good works as president of the New York State Board of Charities. Letchworth inspected and reformed hundreds of orphan asylums, juvenile reformatories, and poor-houses. He then toured, at his own expense, model facilities in the U.S. and Europe for housing the insane, epileptics, and poor children, and wrote two definitive books on these subjects that were later used to establish new hospitals and homes offering a better standard of care. Eventually he served as president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, and the National Association for the Study of Epilepsy.

A Quaker raised to value not only hard work, self-improvement, and charity but also nature, Letchworth poured himself into improving his property in the Genesee gorge. He then allowed unfettered access to tourists drawn by the waterfalls and rugged scenery (immortalized by painter Thomas Cole among others) in what is still referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East. Late in Letchworth’s life, there were moves afoot to dam the Genesee River to power mills and factories. To preserve the rare beauty of the area he donated his thousand acres to create a state park in 1907. Today Letchworth remains one of the most visited state parks in the eastern U.S.

In 1798, the twin grandsons of a Quaker who was farming 400 acres in the far southeastern corner of Pennsylvania developed an interest in natural history; they began planting a collection of trees that eventually included specimens from throughout the U.S. and overseas. The grove, which grew to 15 acres, became a popular spot for picnics and family reunions. Generations later the family lost interest in the arboretum and new owners were at the point of contracting with a lumber company to remove the trees when successful industrialist Pierre du Pont purchased the land in 1906 to preserve its botanical richness and create an outdoor sanctuary for enjoyment.

“I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity,” du Pont wrote to a friend soon after. “I have purchased a small farm. I expect to have a good deal of enjoyment in restoring its former condition and making it a place where I can entertain my friends.” Without fixed plans, he gradually added gardens, an open-air theater, then a vast greenhouse, and large buildings for music and entertaining. He began hosting elaborate garden parties, and created illuminated fountains that shot 10,000 gallons of water per minute as high as 130 feet.

Du Pont eventually gave a great deal of thought to the future of his gardens, and in 1937 began the Longwood Foundation to maintain them for long-term public enjoyment and education. At his death in 1954 he left the foundation with a sizable endowment, a solid board of trustees, and a long tradition of offering visitors rare beauty. The gardens have continued to grow, and with an annual budget of nearly $50 million and a staff of 1,300 employees, students, and volunteers, has become one of the world’s great gardens.

In 2016, the Longwood board completed a $90 million renovation and enhancement of the garden’s most prominent feature—the astonishing dancing fountains that Pierre du Pont was intimately involved in creating. Rather than simply restoring the 80-year-old structures, the board returned to the founder’s original vision of using the best available modern technology to create the most entrancing fountains in existence. Du Pont’s layout of classical sculptures and limestone basins was scrupulously rebuilt, but the guts of the fountains were redesigned with special pumps, thousands of LED lights, and computerized effects, to make sure that the donor’s legacy would remain in the future what he created it to be in his own day—the most spectacular example of its kind.

In 1906, Pierre du Pont purchased some land from Philadelphia-area farmers in order to preserve an arboretum that had been established on the acreage. Du Pont was the fourth-generation executive of a family business he had helped grow into a vast corporation. Amidst his business-building he was traveling the world and seeing technological wonders, architectural masterpieces, and magnificent gardens. He was impressed by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in his native Philadelphia, the Sydenham Crystal Palace in England, the Eiffel Tower, illuminated fountains in Chicago, and much more. He knew that the patch of land he had bought housed one of the finest collections of trees on the continent, and he grew determined to make his mark on it, incorporating some of the wonderful landscape features he’d seen and learned of.

He began hosting summer garden parties, and spent much time creating astounding new gardens and landscaping around his arboretum. He added a massive conservatory for indoor enjoyment of flowers and plants. He added classical columns and fountains and planting beds laid out in Italian and French styles rarely seen in Pennsylvania. Illuminated, colored fountains featuring complex hydraulics shot 10,000 gallons of water per minute as high as 130 feet into the air. And there were endless manicured displays of vibrant flowers.

After giving thought to the future of his gardens, du Pont in 1937 began the Longwood Foundation to support long-term public enjoyment and education. At his death in 1954 he left the foundation with a sizable endowment and a long tradition of astounding beauty. The gardens have continued to grow in complexity, size, and coherence, cementing Longwood Gardens as one of America’s garden gems.

Ellen Scripps, whose fortune derived from the Scripps family’s newspaper empire, generously supported a range of charitable causes across southern California. She donated the land and first building for a Catholic college-prep school for girls, and supported it financially for years. She endowed what would become Scripps College, a part of the Claremont Colleges that she had helped to found. She commissioned a women’s club headquarters and community center, and the country’s first public playground, in La Jolla. She funded Egyptian explorations that resulted in the San Diego Museum’s Ancient Egyptian collection. She founded the Scripps Memorial Hospital and the Scripps Metabolic Clinic.

Nature philanthropy was one of Ellen Scripps’s favorite causes. She helped preserve the area that would become Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. She was a financer of the new headquarters of the San Diego Natural History Museum. She gave the San Diego Zoo an aviary and an animal research hospital. And in 1903, she underwrote the founding of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. Ellen gave it a sizable endowment, and the Scripps family provided its entire operating budget for a decade until it was taken over by the University of California, San Diego and renamed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—which is today one of the oldest, largest, and most important centers in the world for research, education, and public service on the oceans, earth, and atmosphere.

Henry Phipps was one of Andrew Carnegie’s most trusted partners, and ended up owning more of their steel operation than anyone but Carnegie himself. After the sale of the company, Phipps became a very generous, albeit very quiet, philanthropist. (See his entry in our Philanthropy Hall of Fame.) His most visible donation was his creation, in Pittsburgh, of one of America’s most impressive botanical gardens. The property centers on one of the preeminent surviving examples of a Victorian greenhouse, a structure now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, and on the land surrounding, is a tremendous collection of flora. Phipps, who was known as a kindly man, particularly intended for his gardens to be accessible to and enjoyed by working men and women, whom he believed deserved the refreshment of natural beauty amidst the toil and busyness of urban life. The nonprofit that runs his conservatory has recently turned it into one of the most environmentally efficient such facilities anywhere.

Just after the Civil War, E. A. “Ned” McIlhenny was born on Louisiana’s Avery Island—a 2,500 acre dome surrounded by marsh, swamp, and bayou. His family had operated a sugar plantation thereon, but the war put an end to that, so McIlhenny’s father built a new business on the island selling hot pepper sauce—which he and his successors popularized as “Tabasco.” The firm (which is still family owned and operates from Avery Island) was run by Ned for most of his adult life, but Ned is best remembered as a remarkable amateur naturalist. Homeschooled and given free run of the surrounding watery lands, he was sometimes out in nature for days at a time.

Alarmed at the disappearance of the charismatic snowy egret from the region, Ned set up a rookery and refuge near his house in 1892, when he was 20. To quote from his book Bird City, “I went into the swamps in search of nests of the snowy herons to get some young so that I could try to save these beautiful birds
from being exterminated by the hunters who killed them for their feathers with which to decorate ladies’ hats. After several days’ search I found two nests, each containing four young. The eight birds were not yet old enough to fly 
and, storing them in the pockets of my hunting coat, I brought them to the cage I had built.” After rearing the hatchlings in protective captivity he released them in the fall to join their fellow fliers migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. But the following spring they returned, with others of their species. The numbers of egrets breeding in the protection of Avery Island grew every year, helping save the snowy and American egrets from extinction. Today, thousands of water birds still migrate to the private sanctuary near the Tabasco factory.

McIlhenny went on to lead a fascinating life, which included many other contributions to naturalism. He became an Arctic explorer, and collected bird and mammal specimens that are still held in museums (while also helping save, via his hunting skills, more than 200 sailors marooned in Alaska by early-arriving ice). He conducted original research on the habits of many creatures, writing books on the wild turkey, egrets, and the alligator that became standard references. He published heavily in ornithological journals, and banded an astonishing 189,298 birds during his lifetime. He also trained himself in botany—translating from French to English the classic 13-volume iconography of camellias, becoming a pioneer planter and taxonomizer of bamboo, and earning international recognition for his work culturing camellias, azaleas, and irises. He created a 170-acre experimental garden on Avery Island, packed it with interesting plant specimens, and in 1935 opened it to the public as Jungle Gardens, which is still operated as a park by the family, and can be visited in its glory for a modest private admission fee.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, McIlhenny approached major American philanthropists with a proposal to create a string of wildlife refuges along the Louisiana coast. Under his guidance, Charles Ward, Olivia Sage and her foundation, John Rockefeller and his foundation, and others made purchases of marshland totaling 175,000 acres to provide protected winter habitat for upward of a million waterfowl. Back on Avery Island, meanwhile, McIlhenny took pains to preserve the area’s pristine beauty and continue its role as a wildlife refuge even when oil was discovered on the property in 1942. He resolved to demonstrate that energy production and nature could responsibly coexist, and succeeded. Informed by this example, gas and oil production was also allowed a decade later by no less than the Audubon Society at their Paul Rainey Bird Sanctuary in Louisiana.

• McIlhenny biography contained within an article on his bamboo studies,

During the later nineteenth century, Charles Eliot was a young man working as a landscape architect in Boston. His father was president of Harvard and would be instrumental in founding what would become Acadia National Park. Eliot himself had more local ambitions. But these local efforts set a hugely important, quintessentially American, precedent for private conservation that would eventually spread all across the nation.

During Eliot’s day, New England didn’t get much attention from conservationists. Conserving was something one did to big patches of wilderness in the West, not an undertaking for the long-settled Atlantic states. It was clear to Eliot, though, that the time was coming soon when a majority of the U.S. population would be living packed into cities. He thought it important to make special efforts to help citizens access clean, healthful, beautiful outdoor areas close at hand, where they could gain relief from urban pressures.

In 1890, Eliot wrote a letter to the publication Garden and Forest suggesting that an association should be created to acquire “reservations”—lands “which possess uncommon beauty” where New Englanders could experience rural refreshment. “As Boston’s lovers of art united to form the Art Museum, so her lovers of Nature should now rally to preserve for themselves and all the people as many as possible of these scenes of natural beauty which, by great good fortune, still exist near their doors.” Eliot researched precedents in the form of historical societies and village improvement groups, and then persuaded the Appalachian Mountain Club (see 1876 entry) to invite enthusiasts from around the state to a meeting in Boston. About a hundred interested souls showed up, including influential leading citizens.

The gathering resolved to form a voluntary group “capable of acquiring and holding for the benefit of the public beautiful and historic places in Massachusetts.” The Trustees of Public Reservations was soon up and running as America’s first conservation land trust (the “public” was dropped in 1954 to make clearer that it is a privately run organization). The founders began raising donations, and by 1891 they had already been offered their first reserve, a lovely 20-acre parcel with a stream and old woods in Stoneham (which has since grown into a 2,575-acre section of the Boston metro park system). Today the Trustees of Reservations still operates as a thriving, member-supported nonprofit, overseeing 70 miles of coastline, 270 miles of trails, 12,292 acres of natural habitat, and numerous historic sites, gardens, woods, and landscapes. And it has inspired the blossoming of other land trusts across the U.S. (See 1982 summary.)

Throughout U.S. history, many of our most important wildlife-restoration and conservation actions have been led by Americans who love to hunt animals. The Boone & Crockett Club is the oldest example of this. Founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Grinnell, in honor of pioneering hunters and frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the club has maintained a small membership of ardent sportsmen who promote the ethics of fair hunting, unspoiled wilderness, and “manly sport with the rifle.” The group was an early champion of national parks and initiated many wildlife-management measures, with a special interest in big game, habitat conservation, and “fair chase and sportsmanship.” It has spawned and supported many other groups like the American Bison Society, which was important in saving that animal from extinction, and Ducks Unlimited. Donations provide most of its budget, along with member dues and fees for use of its hunting ranch. It offers education programs, and serves as a kind of think tank for conservation issues.

In 1876, Edward Pickering, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, convened on MIT’s Boston campus a gathering of 34 men with a shared interest in mountain exploration and the outdoors. Some of the attendees wanted to form a “New England Geographical Society,” but rather than create “one more learned society,” the attendees decided to create “a vigorous, full-blooded, ardent club” that would support actual outdoor adventuring by building paths and huts available for general use. By 1906 the Appalachian Mountain Club had more than a thousand members and managed more than 100 miles of trails and many cabins. Its success inspired John Muir and some professors from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University to found the Sierra Club in 1892, though that organization soon veered in a different direction as a mass-membership political group, rather than an operating entity.

Today the Appalachian Mountain Club is still focused on enabling the active enjoyment of the outdoors. Its 100,000 members, 16,000 volunteers, and many loyal donors maintain over 1,800 miles of forest trails plus hundreds of shelters, working through 12 local chapters stretching along the East Coast. In 2003 the club took another bold step into direct conservation by raising private money to buy and permanently protect a 37,000-acre tract bordering the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Six years later the organization bought an adjacent 29,500-acre block, thus creating a large continuous corridor of conservation lands stretching north to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin (described in a 1930 entry). These major purchases were inspired by concern over the decline of the timber industry in Maine, which had traditionally allowed generous public use of its lands while keeping them in a wild state.

The AMC launched its “Maine Woods Initiative” to demonstrate creative ways to combine four productive uses of wild lands: recreation, conservation, sustainable forestry, and community partnerships. On their purchased lands, ecological and local economic needs are pursued simultaneously by mixing various forms or outdoor recreation, timber harvesting, and new nature-based tourism that aims to create jobs and provide the club with revenues. On this land the club currently maintains an 80-mile network of trails, three full-service lodges with private cabins in the traditional Maine sporting-camp tradition, and access for hunting and fishing, paddling, skiing, snowmobiling, and other uses.

Henry Bergh operated the shipbuilding business founded in New York City by his father, and retired early with a substantial fortune. An abolitionist, his friendship with William Seward won him an appointment as part of the American delegation to Russia during the Civil War. While in St. Petersburg Bergh came upon a Russian mercilessly beating his fallen cart horse; disturbed, he tried to intervene. Later, on his way back to the U.S., Bergh stopped in London to meet with the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shortly after his return to New York he began to solicit friends with a plan to found a U.S. counterpart. He won a public charter in 1866, put a good deal of his own money into launching the organization, and became the first president of the first animal-welfare organization in the country: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Bergh engaged public opinion, and frequently put himself in harm’s way to stop acts of cruelty himself. His debates with P. T. Barnum on humane conditions for show animals led to a friendship; Barnum helped form an SPCA branch in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was eventually a pallbearer at Bergh’s funeral. The success of the New York City group spurred the formation of local SPCA chapters in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston, and then many other cities. In 1874 Bergh became involved in a case of abuse of a foster child that resulted in creation of a parallel Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. A broad “humane” movement, nudged further by horror at the violence of the Civil War, spread across the U.S., with Henry Bergh’s loyal financial support and steady enlistment of friends helping it along the way.

Henry Shaw came to America as a teenager, the son of a man who was looking for new markets for his family’s English steel business. The family set up a hardware store in a little village called St. Louis. By the time he was 40, Henry was able to retire a rich man. It was when he revisited the beautiful open gardens of England in 1851 that he found a new purpose. He recalled that St. Louis—indeed all of America—then had no public gardens, and few public parks. Returning to the by-now bustling city where he had made his fortune, Henry commenced building the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1856.

The idea of a public horticultural reserve funded by an enterprising private citizen captivated plant experts like St. Louisan George Englemann and Asa Gray of Harvard, the nation’s foremost botanist. They began accumulating plants to contribute to Shaw’s project. In 1859, the Botanical Garden opened to the public.

Yet its benefactor wasn’t finished. Since all of the city’s extant parks were small, he approached municipal leaders about possibly donating a large public park. He envisioned a glorious, sprawling place where all residents could enjoy the outdoors. It took some legislative wrangling at the state level, but Shaw eventually donated his own property to create Tower Grove Park—277 acres of land covered with 20,000 trees. It opened in 1870.

Shaw later published botanical tracts, endowed the School of Botany at Washington University, and opened schools, hospitals, and other contributions to his home city. His botanical garden is now a National Historic Landmark, and the oldest and one of the greatest of its type in the U.S. It offers nearly 80 acres of garden oasis in the heart of the city, numerous impressive collections of rare flowers, and centers for research and education.

Arts & Culture

Private philanthropy has created and continues to sustain America’s culturally rich and artistic activities.


More philanthropic donations are channeled to education than any other sector except religion.

Local Projects

An overwhelming percentage of American philanthropy takes place locally – bounty sharing among neighbors.

Medicine & Health

Medical philanthropy has a long history, from charity hospitals to the development of life-saving therapies.

Nature, Animals & Parks

National parks, urban green spaces, zoos and aquariums, and wildlife protections have been created by private givers.


Americans have built a reputation as charitable neighbors, providing assistance beyond their own borders.


Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives and requires tackling the sources that lead to it.

Public-Policy Reform

Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has become a constructive branch of philanthropy.


Religious giving is a pillar of belief and conformity with divine intentions, expanding faith and bringing enlightenment.

Nature, Animals, & Parks