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Nonprofit helps fund projects at Death Valley, Great Basin

After raising $80 million for one of America’s most iconic national parks, Bob Hansen has turned his attention to some lesser known treasures.

Hansen is executive director of the Fund for People in Parks, a nonprofit sponsorship group he founded in 2014 to help enhance the experience at smaller park sites across the West, including Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

So far, the San Francisco Bay Area-based group has raised more than $800,000 for 30 projects at 11 different parks, from Haleakala National Park on Maui to Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.

Most of the donations were in the $25,000 to $50,000 range and were used to pay for things like interpretive signs, trail improvements, exhibits and orientation films.

The fund also gave $10,000 to replace the sail on a replica Chinese shrimp boat at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and $15,000 to buy new uniforms for military re-enactments at Fort Vancouver National Historical Site in Washington. It provided $34,240 to the Manzanar National Historic Site in California to collect oral histories from some of the Japanese-Americans who were held at the internment camp during World War II.

“We focus on giving visitors something more than they bargained for,” Hansen said.

Big support for small parks

The group’s latest contribution is also its largest to date: $284,000 to help renovate Dantes View, a popular overlook at Death Valley National Park. The gift helped cover almost half of the cost of the project, and it fully funded the addition of a $51,000 bronze relief map of Death Valley.

Hansen, who joined park officials for a ribbon-cutting Wednesday at the site 125 miles west of Las Vegas, said his interest in national parks began at an early age.

“I’m like a lot of people,” he said. “I wanted to be a park ranger.”

Instead he found work in outdoor education and conservation before joining what is now known as the Yosemite Conservancy, an independent charitable association that supports the national park in California. During his 19 years as the group’s president, he helped find money for more than 200 projects in Yosemite, including separate $13.5 million campaigns to overhaul the park’s trail system and improve the approach to Yosemite Falls.

The experience taught him that such well-known “license plate parks,” as he called them, have plenty of organizations eager to help them. “But then there’s all these wonderful parks … that don’t have as much of a support structure,” he said.

So Hansen decided to spend his “semiretirement” helping places like that.

A matter of interpretation

The Fund For People In Parks chose something simple for its first project: four new viewing scopes so visitors could study the rock spires and California condors at Pinnacles National Park in Northern California.

Hansen said National Park Service sites operate on limited budgets, and most of their funding gets eaten up by the “have-to-do stuff” like resource protection, public safety and maintenance. Interpretation — the office that helps visitors understand the history and context of what they are seeing — is often first on the chopping block when cuts are made.

At Death Valley, for example, the park service had 20 new educational signs sitting in storage because there wasn’t enough money to put them up, so the fund stepped in to pay for the installation.

“The park is a monster. It’s bigger than the state of Connecticut,” Hansen said. “If you have to send a ranger out to Eureka Dunes to put up a sign, you’re talking about a long, 10-hour day.”

Then there is Dantes View, where park spokeswoman Abby Wines said the sidewalks were literally crumbling down the mountain and parents were afraid to let go of their children’s hands while walking near the edge of the overlook.

Without private donations, Wines said, the work would not have gotten done until 2023 at the earliest.

‘Mystery’ rifle gets new display

Sometimes the fund donates money directly to the park. Other times it channels the funds through a specific foundation or association affiliated with a given site.

Earlier this year, for example, the fund gave a $3,500 grant to Great Basin National Park Foundation, which used it to buy a new telescope for the park’s wildly popular ranger-led night-sky programs.

“We use that one three times a week,” said Nichole Andler, acting superintendent for the park in White Pine County, 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

By donating to the foundation at Great Basin or the Death Valley Natural History Association, Hansen said his organization can help strengthen those local groups and, in some cases, open up access to federal matching funds.

As Andler put it, “Their work helps raise up our foundation, and our foundation helps raise up the park.”

Hansen and company are now bankrolling the development of what promises to be another popular attraction at Great Basin: a permanent display at the visitor center for a 133-year-old Winchester rifle that was found leaning against a tree in the park in 2014.

Thanks to $12,000 from The Fund For People In Parks, the “mystery Winchester” exhibit should make its debut sometime this fall, Andler said.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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