Yosemite education, fund-raising groups merge

FRESNO -- Pop quiz: Which group sells you maps and guidebooks at the Yosemite National Park visitor center -- the Yosemite Association or the Yosemite Fund?

Now it's both, under the new name Yosemite Conservancy.

The park's two closest nonprofit friends merged the Yosemite Fund's money-raising and the association's education efforts while eliminating confusion. The maps and books had been sold by the association for many years.

"There has been some confusion in the past, but our missions seem to be creeping together," said conservancy chief Michael Tollefson, former Yosemite superintendent and former leader of the Yosemite Fund. "In some cases, we've been looking for funding from the same donors."

Leaders from the two organizations joined National Park Service officials, dignitaries and others Friday to announce the formal completion of the merger at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. The merger was announced late last year.

It brings together the National Park Service's oldest support association and one of the most successful park fund-raisers in the nation. The association filled both roles for many years until the 1980s, when the fund-raising function split off. Officials at the time thought they needed separate organizations to focus on the differing functions.

The fund, which chipped in $55 million for 300 park projects over the past two decades, built a following of more than 75,000 donors. The association, with 10,000 members, continued offering nature programs, selling books at the visitor centers and presenting outdoor classes that government funding did not cover.

The creation of the association was encouraged in 1923 by Stephen Mather, the first National Park Service director. Now there are hundreds of similar nonprofit friends for national parks all over the country. For instance, Yellowstone National Park has the Yellowstone Association and the fund-raising arm Yellowstone Park Foundation.

Organizers of the Yosemite Conservancy found inspiration from the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, which has succeeded in blending fund raising, education and conservation programs since 1981.

Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said such nonprofit partners have changed the face of national parks.

In the past several years, notable improvements have been built at Yosemite Falls for $13.5 million, Glacier Point for $4 million and Happy Isles for $2 million. The money came from the Yosemite Fund.

The conservancy's fund-raising goal this year is $6.4 million for 34 projects. The group will emphasize young people in Yosemite, hoping to provide $1 million to educate young people from disadvantaged backgrounds about the outdoors.

At the same time, the conservancy will continue the work of the association. Aside from the visitor center, the work includes volunteers who help at the museum in Yosemite Valley, guided backpack trips, junior ranger programs to teach children about the outdoors and many other activities.