America’s Front Yard in Desperate Need of Repair

Last summer President Bush launched an ambitious 10-year plan to restore the national parks in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016. Under the president’s leadership, the newly created Centennial Challenge promises federal matching funds totaling $100 million annually for signature projects that muster private funds. Among the top priorities in the public/private partnership was the National Mall.

We applaud the president for doing his part and including the National Mall as one of this year’s Centennial Challenge funding priorities. Lady Bird Johnson would be proud that we are working together to restore one of the most significant parks in the country — an incomparable civic, patriotic, cultural and symbolic space that inspires great pride befitting our nation’s capital.

The National Mall, part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original vision for the capital city, stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol grounds, past the Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue along the Ellipse and White House grounds. Home to the Korean War, Vietnam and World War II veterans’ memorials, the National Mall is where thousands gather on Memorial Day to pay somber tribute to those who have served our country. Shaped by American elms and Japanese cherry trees, its monuments to great leaders are among our most famous national images, while its quiet gardens and noisy ball fields are spots for everyday enjoyment.

But the National Mall is much more. It is a reflection of America’s history, from triumph to tragedy, and a national platform for our democracy. Its green lawns have been host to powerful expressions of remembrance and protest, the place where U.S. citizens — and the world — look to see who we are as a society.

Yet, despite the many riches it offers, the National Mall is not all it could be. With time and the impact of 25 million visitors a year — more than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone combined — the parkland has become worn down and threadbare. Crumbling pathways, random clusters of information booths and concessions stands, and battered bathrooms and benches are not the best way to welcome people from around the world to the magnificent landscape. Those who attended this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival saw a stark statement of the repair work to be done, as they navigated cracked and sinking walkways around the Tidal Basin while taking in the scene.

We know the National Mall is not alone in its needs. Across the country, the National Park Service faces a $5 billion repair and maintenance backlog for parks covering 84 million acres. In order to offer support and ensure that the needs of the National Mall are met in a timely fashion, a new public/private partnership called the Trust for the National Mall has been formed. The trust brings together concerned citizens, the private sector and committed government leaders in an effort to revive this centerpiece of our national identity.

To restore the National Mall and monuments, the trust aims to mobilize individuals and local and national groups to raise the necessary funds to refresh the National Mall’s green spaces, repair its benches and walkways, and create new educational opportunities for learning about the park’s unique history. The trust will help fund the planting of trees, flowers and grass and fix up fountains and ponds. It will boost public participation, with a bigger staff and a corps of citizen gardeners and other volunteers who share a commitment to restoring this urban oasis.

The National Park Service includes something for everyone, from the Glacier Bay in Alaska to the Everglades in Florida. But the National Mall — in the president’s backyard — is America’s Front Yard. It is befitting that it is a priority of the administration and the Centennial Challenge. Let’s work together to ensure it becomes vibrant and welcoming for generations to come.

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) served as Majority Leader. Walter Mondale is a former vice president.

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