By Lisa Bramen
#1 WISCONSIN/Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
In 1974, the Conservancy transferred 1,481 acres of Michigan Island to this park—a kayakers’ and sailors’ paradise of ice caves, cliffs and lighthouses on 21 islands in Lake Superior. The Conservancy now works with the park service to protect nesting habitat for endangered piping plovers, a small shorebird known for its whistling peeps.
#2 CALIFORNIA & NEVADA/Death Valley National Park
Sometimes, protecting a park means managing land far beyond its borders. The Amargosa River, fed by groundwater in Nevada, runs mostly underground into California, creating a string of oases in Death Valley wherever it surfaces. These aquatic habitats support rare pupfish and more endemic species than almost anywhere else in the country. more than 18,000 acres of surrounding land to ensure the river’s continued flow.
(left) COOL HIKE: An ice cave at Sand Island in the Apostle Islands. © Ian Plant; (right) NATURAL ODDITY: Rocks, moved by wind, leave trails in the lake bed of Racetrack Playa. © Matthew Kuhns/TandemStock
#3 TEXAS/Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The highest point in Texas—Guadalupe Peak—and its surrounding desert were once at the bottom of a prehistoric sea. That makes this a prime place for spotting fossils from the Permian geologic period, some 265 million years ago. A 2011 donation from the Conservancy added 177 acres of massive, brilliant white gypsum dunes to the park.
#4 COLORADO/Great Sand Dunes National Park
Cresting at 750 feet, these waves of sand form the tallest dunes in North America. They depend on a cycle of replenishment: Wind blows sand from a dry lake bed toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where creeks carry it back down to the open landscape to be swept back up again. For decades this delicate process was jeopardized by plans to divert water from nearby Baca Ranch. In 2004, the Conservancy brokered a $35 million deal to incorporate the ranch into the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, nearly quadrupling its size and upgrading it to a national park.
FROM THE TOP: It can take more than an hour just to climb the tallest peak at Great Sand Dunes’ first ridge, but the descent makes it well worth the effort. The park and nearby preserve also host forests and mountain trails. © Nick Hall
#5 CALIFORNIA/Channel Islands National Park
Back in the 1990s, the dwarf Santa Cruz Island fox became easy prey for invasive golden eagles. A program of the Conservancy, the Park Service and other partners relocated the predators, reintroduced native bald eagles and bred foxes to repopulate the island. In little more than a decade after being listed as an endangered species, the fox has made the fastest recovery of any endangered mammal.
#6 HAWAII/Hawai‘i Volcanos National Park
In 2003, the Conservancy and the Park Service jointly purchased the 116,000-acre Kahuku Ranch, a sprawling tract on Hawai’i Island that includes grasslands, a forested crater, dozens of endangered plant and bird species unique to the island, and one of the most active portions of the Mauna Loa volcano. The land was transferred to the Park Service, increasing the size of Volcanoes National Park by 50 percent.
#7 CALIFORNIA/Golden Gate National Recreational Area
Just a few minutes from downtown San Francisco, the Marin Headlands’ windswept bluffs and valleys offer superb hiking and biking, while providing a home to dozens of endangered or threatened species. What many visitors don’t realize is that this land was the focus of an epic conservation battle in the 1960s, when a developer kicked off plans to build a new city. In the face of high-profile protests, the developer sold the land to the Conservancy, which transferred it in 1975 to the Park Service to become part of the new Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
FOREST ESCAPE: The Smokies’ high elevation and shady canopy create the Southeast’s coolest summertime getaway. © Michael Schertz/TandemStock
#8 WASHINGTON/Olympic National Park
Recent Conservancy purchases are protecting temperate rainforests and creating a conservation corridor between the park’s wilderness and the rugged Olympic coast. In the late 1970s, the Conservancy sold Point of Arches, a coastal landmark known for its otherworldly sea stacks, to the government for addition to the park. Proceeds from the sale helped fund other Conservancy land acquisitions.
#9 KANSAS/Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Grassy plains covered a substantial portion of North America until agriculture eliminated all but a small fraction—along with the bison that once roamed them. Now, more than a century after American bison nearly went extinct, the majestic animals are making a comeback, and one herd grazes the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This 10,894-acre preserve in the Flint Hills, the only tallgrass prairie in the national park system, was established in 1996 as a public-private partnership. In 2005, the Conservancy became the primary owner of this rare expanse of tallgrass prairie, which it now co-manages with the National Park Service.
#10 TENNESSEE and NORTH CAROLINA/Great Smoky Mountains
With more than 800 square miles of Appalachian mountains, hundreds of miles of backcountry hiking, mature hardwood forests that turn fiery shades in autumn and amazing biological diversity, it’s no wonder this is one of the most visited national park sites. But along with the more than 10 million people who come here each year, a few unwelcome guests sneak in. The Conservancy recently partnered with the park on a public awareness campaign to prevent the introduction of invasive insects on firewood, and it is now helping conduct prescribed burns to clear the buildup of leaf litter on the forest floors and restore plant diversity in fire-dependent ecosystems.