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Fidelity’s Johnson family donates nearly $30 million for national parks

Bass Harbor Head Light in Maine.istockphoto

It’s a donation that stands out, even by the standards of the Johnsons, the wealthy Boston family behind Fidelity Investments.

Tax records filed late last year show the Edward C. Johnson Fund, one of the family’s large charitable foundations, gave $29.7 million in 2015 to the National Park Foundation. The gift, designated for land acquisition, was made during a historic $350 million fund-raising campaign that’s still underway by the philanthropic arm of the National Park Service.

The Johnsons have given generously to other outdoors-related causes over the years, notably the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit that protects public land in Massachusetts. Other recipients have included Camp Beech Cliff, on Mount Desert Island in Maine, and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute.


But rarely has the family given a single gift this large.

The $163 million park foundation was created in 1967 by Lady Bird Johnson (no relation) to provide private support for national parks and monuments, venues visited by 331 million people last year — from the Grand Canyon and Maine’s Acadia to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Before the fund-raising began in 2013, the National Park Foundation was bringing in just $22 million annually, the group’s president said. The Johnsons are among an elite group of donors that include Roxanne Quimby of the Burt’s Bees fortune and the investor David Rubenstein.

Retired Fidelity chairman Edward C. “Ned” Johnson 3d has for years directed the largest portions of his giving to the arts, including tens of millions to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and to his own nonprofit that buys works of art and loans them out.

In recent years, he also gave millions of dollars to hospitals for medical research and supported the building of a Zen center in San Francisco, among other causes.


Johnson, 86, stepped down as chief executive of Fidelity in 2014, handing the reins to his daughter Abigail Johnson, and relinquishing the chairman’s role to her in December. People close to the family say his philanthropic vision would have been a factor in the 2015 parks contribution.

But there is discussion in nonprofit circles that change is afoot in how the Johnsons will manage their $1.8 billion in charitable funds, as the next generation sets priorities for one of the city’s largest philanthropic portfolios. Ned Johnson became chairman emeritus of the funds recently.

The 2015 records, the latest available, reflect giving to most of the usual charities from over the years. At the same time, there was evidence that Johnson’s children have begun to make their own mark.

There were fewer art acquisitions, for instance, and more money for the Institute of Contemporary Art and Harvard University, where Abigail Johnson and her husband, Christopher McKown, both earned their MBA degrees. (Ned Johnson also attended college there.)

Larger gifts also went to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, where McKown is a director, and to clubs in cities across the country where Fidelity has employees.

Food banks in a number of regions also received grants.

The US Equestrian Team received larger grants in 2015 than in previous years, according to the tax filings. Abigail Johnson’s sister, Elizabeth, is an avid equestrian.

As for the National Park Foundation gift, it is large enough that it would probably have been in the works for some time, nonprofit specialists said. The park foundation’s staff declined to comment on the gift, which is not identified by name, in keeping with the family’s practice. A Fidelity spokesman also declined to comment.


The National Park Service has found itself thrust into the political spotlight in recent months.

It was the Park Service that angered President Trump by retweeting photos of his inauguration that showed lighter attendance than at Barack Obama’s swearing-in. In his federal budget, Trump is seeking to cut the Interior Department’s budget by $1.5 billion, and he has rolled out a number of proposals seen as harmful to the environment by his critics.

Yet last week, Trump donated the first three months of his federal paycheck to the National Park Service: $78,333, earmarked to support historic battlefields.

The Quimby family, which in August gave $80 million in land and financial support to the parks foundation to create Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine’s North Woods, is now facing opposition from Maine Governor Paul LePage. The governor has asked President Trump to overturn the national monument status.

A spokeswoman for Trump declined to comment.

But the dispute, and the Trump administration’s environmental policies in general, are giving pause to donors like the Quimby family.

“I’m very concerned that this administration may not take care of the public assets that we have, including the park system as a whole,” said Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son.


William Shafroth, the parks foundation president, said the organization still expects to exceed its $350 million goal by September 2018.

He declined to wade into the political questions.

“We’re a nonpartisan organization,’’ Shafroth, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We stay out of the fray.”

Visitors watched the sun rise from atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe

Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.