The National Recreation and Park Association Keeping the Outdoor Spirit Alive

The modest mission of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)—"To advance parks, recreation and environmental conservation efforts that enhance the quality of life for all people"—"belies the complexity of the organization itself: its unique structure, its rich history, its impressive successes, and its ambitions for the future.

The NRPA has about 25,000 members and 66 employees. Most work from its headquarters situated near a park in Ashburn, Virginia, near Dulles Airport, about 30 miles outside of Washington. There also is a satellite office on 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in the District, where four government affairs professionals monitor national policy that relates to parks and recreation. This is significant)—"there is a large legislative component to the NRPA's work.

The scope of the organization is vast. The NRPA operates on national, state, and local levels. The organization publishes a full-color monthly magazine, Parks & Recreation that deals with various issues in the field)—"March's issue, for example, focused on playgrounds.

Its annual congress draws upwards of 10,000 members. There are also regional meetings throughout the year. In April, NRPA sponsored the National Health & Livability Summit, where the topic was the child obesity crisis.

Finally, to raise awareness, the NRPA runs public service announcements touting the manifold benefits of parks and recreation. To that end, the organization funds research, publishes books, and commissions studies finding that, among other things, property values increase 20 percent when near a public park.

Structure & History

As associations go, the NRPA is sort of an odd duck. On the one hand, it is a trade association of professionals in the field. But unlike, say, the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, the NRPA also has a citizen advocacy component, drawing members from non-professionals. In fact, the board chair has to be selected from among its citizen membership, as per the organization's bylaws.

"The NRPA is unique," says John Thorner, the executive director. "This poses a challenge for us. There are professional groups, and there are citizen advocacy groups. The NRPA is both."

The dual nature of the organization doesn't end there.

"Most people are surprised to learn that parks and recreation are actually two different fields," says Thorner.

The recreation field arose around the turn of the last century, in response to massive immigration. As the populations in big cities swelled, the lack of adequate housing and outdoor space became glaring.

"The concept of a playground didn't exist," says Thorner. "It became a child welfare issue. People wanted a safe environment for kids to play. The field of recreation was started by kids playing in traffic, literally."

Around the same time, and in response to the same wave of immigration, the parks movement started. Focused mostly in the West)—"Yellowstone was the first National Park)—"the idea was to preserve the idyllic wilderness in its pristine state.

While there was some overlap between the two)—"Teddy Roosevelt, the father of the National Parks system, who grew up in New York City but vacationed in the Badlands and other rustic spots, was active in both)—"parks and recreation were traditionally separate entities.

For the next sixty years, a slew of associations were formed, some dealing with recreation, others with parks, still more with other environmental issues. Some, like the National Recreation Association, carried formidable power, but none of them were national in scope.

Recognizing this deficiency, Laurence Rockefeller)—"son of the philanthropist John D. Jr.)—"merged five similar associations together in 1965, and gave the new group a wider purview. The modern NRPA was born.

Legislation

While the NRPA keeps an eye on anything happening inside the Beltway that could affect parks and recreation, for good or for ill, appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Highway Bill are the most important.

The LWCF was passed in 1965 as a compromise between environmental groups and the oil companies, who were first starting to drill in the ocean, on the continental shelf. The law requires that oil companies pay royalties in exchange for drilling rights)—"royalties that are used to pay for federal, state and local parkland. Basically, the LWCF exacts environmental compensation for drilling.

"It's an amazing piece of legislation that no one has heard of," says Thorner. "Millions of acres of parkland have been funded through the LWCF."

Unfortunately, the LWCF is an authorizing law, meaning that the funds it appropriates are subject to the whim of the federal government. In the past, the LWCF brought in some $400 million a year to buy up parkland. No more.

"In recent years, it's been proposed for zero dollars by the Bush Administration," says Thorner. "Our organization has had to fight like hell to keep some money in the budget."

Thorner is quick to point out that the NRPA is not the only domestic program that has been choked of funding)—"the current administration has a war to finance, after all, and the money has to come from somewhere.

The NRPA managed to secure $30 million a year in funding.

"But $30 million divided over 50 states - it doesn't go very far in terms of buying property," Thorner says.

Another piece of legislation that funds the NRPA is the Highway Bill. Money collected when you fill your gas tank rakes in some $40 billion a year, traditionally for highways. In 1992, $600 million of that $40 billion was earmarked for transportation alternatives)—"hiking and biking trails, creating walking paths on old railroad lines, and similar projects. This money, too, is in danger of running out.

Image Problem

Congress is not alone in undervaluing the role of recreation and parks. Especially on a municipal level, funding for parks and recreation is a hard sell, probably because the support is qualitative rather than quantitative.

"Parks and recreation are municipal services that are liked by its citizens, but not thought of as a necessary public service," Thorner says. "We find that if we're in competition with hospitals, with education, with public works, that we get cut."

The NRPA, while for everyone, focuses a great deal of its attention and energy on children, especially urban children. It sponsors, through the Department of Agriculture, a program that provides lunches for needy children during the summer and on break. It helps keep rec centers open 24/7, to keep children off the street. It was instrumental in starting the Midnight Basketball program.

"The hours from 2 to 6 are just as important to a child's life than the hours from 9 to 3," he says, adding that parks and recreation go hand in hand with education, and should enjoy equal footing)—"although they almost invariably do not.

"We try to create public awareness of the importance of parks and recreation, so it's not seen as a frivolous kind of thing," Thorner says, "but that we feed kids, we get them off the street and out of trouble, we try to combat childhood obesity."

Another area of interest is the inner cities, where national attention has lagged, Thorner says. The NRPA has been working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other groups to put the plight of inner city youth back on the national radar.

"Congress is elected by suburban red states," Thorner says. "Not a lot of attention has been paid to urban issues the last six or seven years."

"We're the only organization looking out for parks and recreation at a national level," he says. "We feel like we have a role to play in preventive health; we want to be thought of as equal to hospitals. We want to be seen as an equal partner to education, not the poor stepchild."

Why should a citizen join the NRPA? "I'd be interested in a group that was passionate about these issues," Thorner says.

For more information, or to join, visit nrpa.org.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.