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About Cooperating Associations

Serving the Public through Interpretation and Stewardship of America’s Public Lands
Each year, millions of people visit America’s national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. At many of these areas, not-for-profit partner organizations, known as “cooperating” or “interpretive” associations, enhance these visits by providing information and other visitor services. The associations provide high-quality, agency-approved publications, maps, videos, theme-related merchandise, and educational programs to help visitors understand the sites’ natural and cultural significance. Associations produce or purchase for sale the finest publications and other merchandise related to the themes and resources of the areas they serve. And the revenues from purchases at a cooperating or interpretive association sales outlet help support additional interpretation, education, and visitor service programs.

A History of Service
National parks led the way in creating cooperating associations—a model of public-private partnership almost as old as the National Park Service itself. In 1920, just four years after the founding of the National Park Service, Yosemite established the first cooperating association. It was clear, even then, that the government could not furnish sufficient educational and visitor information to satisfy a growing appetite for park publications. The success of the Yosemite Association sparked an interest in establishing non-government associations in other national parks. Today, there are 65 national park cooperating associations, serving the nearly 400 areas of the National Park System.

Other federal, and even some state and local public land management agencies, have followed the National Park Service example of working in cooperation with nonprofit organizations to provide interpretation and visitor services. A directory of most of these organizations is available through the Association of Partners for Public Lands.

Unlike concessions, which are for-profit commercial operations, cooperating and interpretive associations are founded for educational purposes. They are governed by volunteer boards of directors, usually comprised of individuals from the community. They operate under a formal agreement with the agency they serve. Although their primary role is to enhance public knowledge and understanding of America’s public lands, associations also donate substantial financial support to their agencies. Proceeds from sales and other association revenues help fund publications; museum, library, and research activities; and other education and conservation efforts. For example, in 2002, National Park Service cooperating associations alone returned $26.5 million in aid to the national parks.


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