Interview: An Inside Look at the Trust for Public Land, Its Mission, and How You Can Help

If you have access to places like this,
you know how important they are!
Can you imagine a world that didn't have any parks or outdoor places to play? I can't, and neither can the folks who work and volunteer for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). But sadly, for some, outdoor spaces aren't as accessible as they could be, and the TPL is working toward changing that.

The TPL is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization working to protect the places people care about and create close-to-home parks—particularly in and near cities, where 80% of Americans live. I sat down with TPL representative Carrie Gotch in an effort to better understand the organization, its mission, and how we can all work to further their goal of ensuring anyone can walk to a park or natural area within ten minutes from home.

What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to protecting public lands for future generations?

In some large cities as many as two-thirds of families do not live within a half-mile of a park. As our organization’s president Will Rogers mentioned in a post on our blog, this needs to be the universal standard of park access. Many kids now spend far more time online, or watching a screen, than out on the land—a trend that does not bode well for the future of the environmental movement. Will Rogers uses this great quote by essayist Robert Michael Pyle: “People who care conserve; people who don’t know, don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” We believe the best way to cultivate the environmental stewards of tomorrow is to provide places where kids can develop their bond with nature today.

What do you see as more important—protecting lands already designated as public lands, or the acquisition and conversion piece?   

Ridley Creek State Park near Philadelphia.
Typically, lands already in the public domain do not face the same development threat as privately held land, with one exception: inholdings.  An inholding is a privately-owned piece of property, which happens to be completely surrounded by public land.

Currently, there are hundreds of inholdings in our national parks, many of which have been or are in danger of being turned into large homes.  We've recently protected several of these inholdings in Glacier National Park and Zion National Park.
With 6,000 acres of open space lost to development every day, our work is cut out for us. At the Trust for Public Land, we focus on land that would likely be purchased, developed, and forever lost as open space if left to market forces. We protect the places that support human health and well-being and that make our communities more livable and lovable – from main street to mountain top.

The TPL works on a number of different project types. What types of projects are the fastest growing right now?  

That depends; every community is different. In the more urban areas, providing access to free outdoor fitness equipment has people clamoring for more. We're building new Fitness Zones on both coasts and in between. There's a huge demand for being able to get a good, fun workout in your local park, and we're doing everything we can to meet that demand.  And, with the growing attention to local food, we're also seeing a lot of interest in incorporating community gardens into our parks and playground work. Kids need to understand where food comes from—seems simple but it is fundamental nonetheless.

Does the Trust interface with local organizations on projects?

Get up, get out and explore!
Constantly—working with the community to identify, prioritize, fundraise for, design, and complete park and conservation goals is a fundamental part of the job. Some of my favorite recent examples include a project in Portland, Maine where we helped a neighborhood group to save their local forest or the brand new Newark Riverfront Park in New Jersey that is connecting residents to the Passaic River for the first time in a generation—we helped a grassroots Newark group work with city officials to make that dream a reality.

How does the Trust prioritize projects? 

The list of factors that go into the decision to protect a certain piece of land or build a park is too long for this post.  In general, we look at mission impact, e.g. how many people will have improved access to a park or natural area as a result of the project, environmental benefits, funding availability, etc.  And the communities are always involved. In fact, most of our parks and playgrounds in New York City and San Francisco were designed together with local residents, including the school kids! We let the community tell us what they want and need in a park, because in the end, it's their park.

What's one thing each of us could do right now to help protect and conserve public lands?

Get outside and enjoy nature, and then share your passion for the outdoors with others. We’re collecting your stories here around why nature is important to you. Share your digital postcard, and then encourage others to share their own to help spread the word that the places people love—from neighborhood playgrounds to vast wilderness escapes—are worth protecting. You can also use the hashtag #OurLand to share your story on social media and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to get the latest updates and fun ideas for enjoying the outdoors.

Thanks to Carrie for taking the time to chat, and for working to protect and create outdoor places for all of us to enjoy! The Trust for Public Land also has a GoPro giveaway going on through June 16th that you'll want to get in on! To enter the contest, submit your photo on Facebook—or post it to Twitter or Instagram and tag it #NeverStillLife. Next, rally your friends to vote for you on the contest page and enter for themselves, too.