07/02/2013 12:46 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Connecting Everyone to Our National Parks

At the National Park Foundation, summer is a season our whole staff looks forward to every year. Each summer, more than 400 national parks welcome visitors from all over the world who come to learn and enjoy all that these incredible places have to offer. With more than 90 million annual park visitors, many may not realize the critical need to foster an enduring connection between the American people and these places. What these impressive visitation numbers belie is how multicultural communities and those who live in urban centers are vastly underrepresented among those millions of park visitors.

Although our national parks are increasingly accessible -- more than 70 are in urban areas and most are within 100 miles of a city -- the parks have struggled to engage these growing urban and multicultural populations. Much of the Foundation's work throughout the year focuses on funding programs that address this disparity, with a goal of CONNECTING everyone to the parks.

In partnership with the National Park Service, the Foundation is working to bridge these critical gaps in visitation, ensuring that our national parks remain and grow in importance to our country's current and future generations. Recently, our America's Best Idea programs taking place in national parks across the country engaged more than 14,000 participants and over 300 community partners in activities and programs, not only inside park boundaries, but in the local areas that surround the parks as well. Over half of all participants were first-time visitors to the park, more than 80 percent of whom were school-aged and, after their experience, 90 percent expressed a desire to return to their local national parks.

Last summer, Golden Gate National Recreation Area engaged the southeastern neighborhoods of San Francisco through a series of activities designed to increase knowledge of the park's resources and the health benefits of in-park experiences to communities who don't traditionally visit the park.

With the support of a NPF America's Best Idea grant, the park partnered with a local health center and elementary school to bring local residents to the park on two separate occasions. At their 6th annual Earth Stroll event, visitors were greeted by an NPS ranger, provided with a healthy lunch at Crissy Field, and participated in activities and games such as a "Park Pursuit" scavenger hunt. Recognizing that bringing the parks to people is equally as important as bringing people to the parks, Golden Gate staff also hosted an event in the local neighborhood to share information about how to access park sites through public transportation, biking or walking.

Although Golden Gate National Recreation Area and events such as Earth Stroll are open to everyone, nearby communities do not usually attend due to transportation barriers and lack of familiarity with the park and the programs they offer. After the successful events, NPS rangers reported that, "Transportation is a key concern for many community and school groups that would like to visit the Golden Gate National Parks more often. By sharing information about public transit routes and by subsidizing buses to bring groups to specific events, we were able to overcome this barrier for these specific programs."

Park staff also noted that, "By engaging new audiences, particularly youth and families, in culturally relevant, free, and enjoyable park activities, the parks have the potential to gain new park enthusiasts and lifelong advocates."

The National Park Foundation is proud of this important work and needs your help to continue and grow its beneficial impact. Read about more of these inspiring program success stories and learn about the work we do and how private support makes it possible to continue this vital mission at