Stanford House is a beautifully restored 19th century farmhouse in the CVNP available for overnight rentals. It’s getting a new roof. Photograph by Sarah Jaquay

Most national parks have “friends groups” that carry out their fundraising and marketing operations. The reason is there’s a prohibition on National Park Service (NPS) staff accepting “a gift from a prohibited source, unless an exception applies and staff has considered appearance concerns.” (NPS Reference Manual 21, Chapter 3.) In general, the definition of gifts is broad and the list of prohibited sources is long. The idea behind this is to prevent the commercialization of our national parks (think corporate names and/or logos at the entrance of every national park!) Thus, the work of friends groups has been critical to preserving and protecting our national parks as well as providing expanded educational and recreational opportunities.
The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park (“Conservancy) is an extremely successful friends group for our local national park, the CVNP. Deb Yandala has been CEO of the Conservancy for several decades. Under her dynamic stewardship, it’s become one of the largest friends group in the country. And while Yandala is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, she was delighted to have the opportunity to host this year’s annual meeting of the National Park Friends Alliance (NPFA) at the end of October. “It’s truly an honor to have our amazing community and national park selected for the National Park Friends Alliance Annual Meeting to highlight our creative partnership work with Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We’re especially well known among this group for our excellence in working with community partners, engaging members and volunteers, and in offering innovative arts and education programs. As a past president of the NPFA, I’m so excited to share our story and welcome the other nonprofit executives supporting our national parks across the United States,” Yandala stated in a press release.
Fortunately, the weather was lovely and this year’s brilliant foliage was peaking just as the NPFA attendees landed in Cleveland. During the four-day event, some 300 participants spent two days meeting in downtown Cleveland and two days on field trips spotlighting the Conservancy’s work in the CVNP. The meeting included training on a variety of topics including: community collaborations/engagement, philanthropy, connecting young adults to public lands careers, supporting park science needs, exploring models of co-leadership with Indigenous communities and engaging the next generation of conservation advocates through immersive education experiences.
National park partners came from as far away as Point Reyes National Seashore in California and Georgetown Heritage in Washington, D.C. Many of them were first-time visitors to Cleveland and to the CVNP. This reporter joined a group of attendees near Boston Mill Visitor Center to hear Akron-based artist Dara Harper explain the process and meaning of her temporary mural, “Finding Our Way Home.”
It was created as part of the Conservancy’s Boston Activation Project. “We did this in conjunction with the opening of our new Boston Mill Visitor Center,” Yandala noted. The goal was to provide a welcoming experience through the arts. What was a parking lot is now a popular place for kids to play.
While some attendees strolled along the Towpath between Boston and Stanford House (a 19th century restored farmhouse available for overnight rentals) with the sun drizzling through red, orange and golden leaves, several shared their impressions of Cleveland and the CVNP. “The food [in Cleveland] is great and the leaves are so beautiful,” noted Donna Faure, executive director of Point Reyes National Seashore Association. She especially enjoyed seeing Brandywine Falls and was struck by how the Cuyahoga River is used “to connect urban communities to public land.” David Grove is president of the Jefferson National Parks Association. Although based in St. Louis, this cooperating association “underwrites countless programs and exhibits,” plus provides high-quality educational products for park stores and museums across five states. Grove was impressed by how “accessible the CVNP is to the urban areas of Cleveland and Akron.” Indeed, but for the creation of the 33,000-acre CVNP the suburbs of those two cities would likely have merged decades ago.
This conference was Jason Zogg’s third visit to the CVNP. He’s the director of planning and revitalization management at Georgetown Heritage, whose goal is to restore and revitalize Georgetown’s National Parks, beginning with the first mile of the historic C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal. Zogg has kayaked on the Cuyahoga and seen a “bunch of wildlife” along its banks; but he was particularly taken with the CVNP’s Canal Exploration Center. He saw a lock demonstration there and notes, “I’d like to replicate that for the C&O Canal.” Perhaps Vice President of Community Partnerships at the National Parks Foundation Sarah Unz said it best when she expressed her enthusiasm for what Deb Yandala and the Conservancy staff have accomplished here. “The mix of revenue streams [the Conservancy] has developed is phenomenal. It’s pretty unique the Conservancy has a project management person and creates all these transformational moments in your national park.” She was referring to weddings, family reunions, milestone anniversaries and even corporate retreats. “It goes beyond those moments. It’s a movement,” Unz exclaimed.
It was quite evident at this fabulous fall meeting that Deb Yandala and the Conservancy staff have friends all across this country. Northeast Ohioans can all take pride in the fact the Conservancy for CVNP is such an innovative leader among our nation’s national parks’ friends groups.
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