Grace Lee, executive director of the National Park Trust, with students on a field trip to Rock Creek Park in D.C. Photo by Liz Lynch.

Grace Lee still remembers the black Chrysler station wagon, without air conditioning, that her parents would fill with camping equipment every summer. They’d put her and her brother, Richard, in the back seat and drive across the country, stopping at every national park they could. 

“We’d take the northern route out west and the southern route back home,” says Lee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When Lee was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, her parents didn’t have much money but did have an affinity for national parks—inexpensive vacation destinations with breathtaking views. “I can still remember the smell of the smoke when we’d cook food outdoors, and every evening the national park rangers put on a program. I loved that.”

For years, Lee and her husband, Kenneth, a cardiologist at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute in D.C., made it a point to take their children, Bethany and Brian, to national parks. The Potomac couple has photos in their kitchen of the family white-water rafting on the Snake River in the Tetons. But plenty of people don’t get the opportunity to experience the parks, which is something Lee, now executive director of the Rockville-based National Park Trust (NPT), hopes to change. “In 2016, there were over 330 million visits to the national parks—most of the visitors [were] older and white,” she says. “By 2044, the census tells us that we are going to be a majority-minority country. If we don’t start building that pipeline now of young people that care about the parks, there aren’t going to be enough people left that care about it.” 

Lee, 59, came to NPT in 2006 after her younger child, Brian, now 28, graduated from high school. The stay-at-home mom, who has a background in chemistry, had served on the board of trustees at the Bullis School in Potomac, which her kids attended. Dick Jung, a former headmaster there, later served as a consultant to NPT. He’d seen Lee help craft strategic plans and raise money for scholarships and professional development at Bullis, and suggested that she bring those skills to NPT. Within a year, she was executive director. 

Since NPT was established in 1983, its primary focus had been to acquire land and donate it to the National Park Service for permanent preservation. But Lee wanted to diversify that mission. The parks needed generational support to succeed long term, she realized. There were too many kids who had never been to a national park, even children in the D.C. area who lived a couple of miles from one. 

In 2008, longtime NPT donor Pat Simons sent Lee some photos from her national park trips, and the pictures showed Simons holding a small stuffed bison toy she’d received as a gift from NPT. As Lee looked at the photos, she realized she’d found a hook. The following year she helped launch the Buddy Bison School Program, which centered on NPT-sponsored field trips to national parks for students at low-income schools. Each child gets a Buddy Bison T-shirt and small stuffed animal to clip onto a backpack or belt loop, and NPT provides teachers with an educational curriculum that matches their students’ grade level. “We know kids love to collect things. We thought if we could inspire them to take ‘Buddy Bison’ to parks, they’d want to come back,” Lee says. 

Now in its 10th year, the program partners with 65 Title I schools across the country—including three in Montgomery County—and most of the money to underwrite the trips comes from donations to NPT. “I tell people, ‘For $10, you can send one kid to a national park,’ ” Lee says.

Marisela Campbell, a teacher at Harmony Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, used to take her second-graders on NPT field trips to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, where they walked the trails to learn more about insects, fauna and birds they’d been studying in class. Now Campbell is teaching kindergarten, and this year her students will go to the National Mall to look for American symbols. “We take three trips per year, and the park ranger comes to the classroom to pass out the T-shirts and give out the little Buddy Bison,” Campbell says. “They see him five to six times throughout the year, and we really know him well by the end of it.”


Lee helped launch the Buddy Bison School Program, which centers on field trips to national parks for students at low-income schools. Park visits have included Piscataway Park in Accokeek, Maryland, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks in D.C.  Photos courtesy of National Park Trust.

After the success of the Buddy Bison program, Lee decided she wanted to do more. “I said, ‘Let’s go for broke—how can we get a bigger megaphone?’ ” she recalls. She decided to start a “Kids to Parks Day,” celebrated on the third Saturday of May, with programming at participating national parks across the country. In 2011, its first year, 18,000 people participated; in 2017, there were more than 1 million participants. 

Even as the Trump administration considers increasing fees to visit some of the most popular national parks, Lee remains undeterred. Organizations like NPT are “critically important,” she says, “not only to preserve and protect our national parks, but also to provide access to these places for our youth.” She points to a lesson on D.C.’s Anacostia River, where students on an NPT-sponsored field trip picked up litter from the water and put it in the canoes they were using. Says Lee, “We’re creating the next generation of park stewards.”