The goal is ambitious: Add 17,000 acres of parkland and 700 miles of trails to the seven-county metro area in the next 20 years.

The cost? About $200 million.

That's a lot of money for governments to come up with in these economic times, so the Metropolitan Council has formed a private, nonprofit fundraising group to help pad the bank account.

The Regional Parks Foundation of the Twin Cities will focus on raising private money to acquire land and raise awareness about the regional parks system.

"It's one of the few truly bipartisan issues -- everybody likes parks," said Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, who helped form the group.

The point is to help the metro area's green space keep up with population growth, he said. The area is expected to gain 1 million people, to reach about 3.6 million, by 2030, according to Met Council estimates.

Officials say putting money in the bank now is the only way to ensure there will be enough parks to balance development. That said, it's a daunting time to be a nonprofit, and similar foundations already exist or are getting started in the metro area.

Several agencies, one system

In 1974, the Met Council designated about 31,000 acres of parks owned by local agencies as regional parks.

Today, there are 52,000 acres of regional park land and 170 miles of trails. The regional parks had 5 million visits in 1975 and more than 33 million in 2007, according to council surveys.

Some of the most popular regional parks are the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, Como Zoo and Conservatory and Mississippi River Gorge. The Minnesota office of the Trust for Public Land has been working with the Met Council on establishing the foundation since 2007, when a study found enthusiasm among potential donors. The Legislature approved the nonprofit in 2007, and it was formed in 2008 with the help of $500,000 from the Met Council.

Private support for public parks isn't a new idea. The Seattle Parks Foundation has raised more than $24 million for projects in that city. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has raised $28 million. Closer to home, the Como Friends has contributed $18 million. And some of the local agencies joining the regional effort have their own foundations, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A strength of creating a regional foundation, Bell said, is that foundations and corporations that might not want to pick and choose where money goes can know that it will go where it's needed most.

There's no shortage of projects that could use the money.

Mark Themig, Scott County parks program manager, envisions foundation dollars helping to purchase land for a 2,000-acre regional park in the Blakeley Bluffs area southwest of Belle Plaine. And the Met Council has identified northwestern Anoka County as an area that could use a new park and trails.

Even in more urban areas, where it might seem there isn't room for parks to expand, there are opportunities to acquire more land. Along the Mississippi River in St. Paul is one example, said Mike Hahm, the city's parks and recreation director.

Cris Gears, superintendent of the Three Rivers Parks District, which serves suburban Hennepin and Scott counties, said many regional parks still have pockets of land held by private owners. Donations funneled through the foundation could make those parks whole.

Maintaining focus

The agencies that own the parks are watching carefully to see how the foundation develops and refines its criteria for picking projects. Success depends on maintaining a long-range, regional focus, officials said.

"Each agency, depending on where they are in their evolution, has different needs," Themig said. "The resources should go to where it's more important, not be so parochial. The fundraising is one thing. Balancing the needs from a regional perspective will be another challenge."

Bell said a "very rational system" will be developed to distribute money.

Another important issue is the makeup of the board, said Jim Olsen, the project consultant who helped the St. Paul Parks Conservancy get on its feet over the past year.

For instance, he said, some boards are made up of an eclectic group of people with great connections to money.

The foundation board now mostly comprises officials from the various governments. Olsen said it will be interesting to see how they reconcile the concerns they represent.

Bell said it was critical to include representatives from the cities and counties so they feel ownership, but he anticipates some "individuals of means" will join the board.

The recession might mean a slow start, but it shouldn't discourage those involved because the goals are long-term, said Susan Schmidt, the state director of Trust for Public land.

"This is building the infrastructure, building the base, the groundwork," she said. "We'll get to the other side of this recession and giving will be robust again."

Jane Johnson, executive director of the regional foundation, said there is a lot of opportunity right now, despite the competition. "I think most people in this community value park land," she said.

Fundraising should begin in late summer or fall. Said Johnson: "It's going to take awhile to build up the bank account."

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148 Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056