Not many gardens are like The Kampong in Coconut Grove, Fla. Nestled near the ocean in a residential neighborhood, it is home to 65 varieties of mango, 30 types of avocado and a host of lesser-known fruits — such as the fig-like peanut butter fruit and the purple cocoplum.
It’s also one of five botanical gardens in the country with a mission from Congress: to preserve and research tropical flora for the people of the United States.
All five of the gardens are run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a nonprofit created by a Congressional charter in 1964. Such a charter is rare; the United States Institute of Peace is one of the more widely known nonprofits to be created the same way.
Unlike the Institute of Peace, however, the NTBG has never gotten federal funding. It has run for more than 40 years on private donations and now raises about $9 million a year, according to General Counsel Mike Shea.
Now a bill is making its way through the Senate to change that, and a companion measure will be introduced in the House soon. The Senate bill would authorize an appropriation of $500,000 in annual matching federal funds until fiscal 2017.
The first bill, introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), unanimously passed the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is set to introduce the companion bill.
Akaka and Abercrombie are pushing the legislation ostensibly because it involves their constituents: Four of the five gardens are in Hawaii. They make up the bulk of the 1,800 acres controlled by the NTBG. Akaka’s bill has also gained the support of Florida’s two Senators, Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D).
“I think they’ve reached a level of maturity with a real solid foundation philosophically and institutionally and now is the time for us then to recognize that and for us to enhance funding for research and support,” Abercrombie said.
While the lawmakers are looking for funding for a program that benefits their districts, it is not an earmark. Congress has given the NTBG its nod of collective approval, and any funding would be authorized in a bill that is individually approved on the House and Senate floors.
Abercrombie said the gardens have a “clear public purpose” of raising public awareness by showing visitors various plant life in a natural environment.
“In this instance, the hidden agenda is right out in the open,” he said, citing the “gorgeous” gardens.
The NTBG has several peers in the plant conservation world but none that are a creature of Congress. It was created soon after Hawaii became a state in 1959, on the urging of a group of conservationists.
“Because Hawaii had just become a state, I think that had a lot to do with it,” Shea said. “People from Hawaii realized that this would be very important and they had an ideal site.”
The NTBG didn’t acquire The Kampong — a Malay word meaning village — until 1984. Now, it works on a budget of about $900,000 a year, said David Lee, the Florida garden’s director.
At almost 12 acres, the garden is different than its sister gardens in Hawaii, which span thousands of acres. Internal research is a smaller part of The Kampong’s function. Rather, it is used as a teaching ground for graduate students and as a go-to place for conferences and outside researchers.
For example, if a disease began to wipe out mango production in Florida, researchers might come to The Kampong to see if one of the garden’s varieties were more resistant.
But The Kampong is expanding its responsibilities, Lee said. It’s trying to hold more lectures and host more conferences that bring together plant and climate change experts.
It’s much the same at the gardens in Hawaii, Shea said. The NTBG is constantly doing more research, publishing more books and working to save more endangered species. With a little more than 100 employees, the organization is spread thin, he said.
“We do all these things for people in the United States,” Shea said. “It’s not a narrow thing. We have national purpose.”
It’s the first time the NTBG has even asked for money, and Shea said he was optimistic the bills would pass.
It could be an easy sell during a time when global warming and “greening” have become priorities on the Hill.
“This research is vital to enriching our lives through not only perpetuating the survival of ecosystems,”Akaka said when introducing his bill, “but preserving the cultural knowledge of these tropical regions.”