- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2011

Throughout the rich history of our nation, young men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice to uphold our values at home and abroad. This Memorial Day, I am proud to offer all Americans a unique opportunity to honor that legacy of valor and sacrifice by protecting the place where our heroes are celebrated: the National Mall.

I am a Washingtonian, a Vietnam veteran and a patriot. One of my favorite things to do is run the length of the Mall and watch the sun rise over the Capitol. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It makes me proud to be an American.

Like the 25 million people who come to the Mall each year, I spend most of my time there mesmerized by its grandeur and beauty, captivated by the history memorialized there and energized by the throngs of tourists, protesters and recreationists. In 2001, however, a young woman challenged me to look at the Mall through a closer lens. What I saw was an embarrassment.

This 700-acre national park is a disgrace - replete with cracked sidewalks, broken lights and threadbare lawns. The Tidal Basin sea wall, which protects the Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials - and soon the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial - has sunk so drastically that it is swamped twice daily by the tides. The steps at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial are cracked and outdated; they make the reflecting pool there inaccessible to many visitors. The basement of the Washington Monument floods during heavy rains. There are not nearly enough visitor facilities or educational resources to engage the millions of families, civics classes, veterans groups, First Amendment demonstrators, foreigners and D.C. residents who frequent the Mall every year.

I am the chairman of the Trust for the National Mall, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service dedicated to restoring and improving the Mall. Our goal is simple: to make the Mall the best park in the world. Through this unique public-private partnership, we will empower all Americans to take part in the restoration of the Mall while encouraging the federal government to be an equal partner in long-term maintenance of the park. The partnership is already doing important work.

On May 17, the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall dedicated the first of 500 new Mall signs that will make it easier for the park’s 25 million-plus annual visitors to get around. The $2.2 million overall price tag for the new way-finding system is being split evenly between private donations and taxpayer funding.

It’s an ideal compromise in an era of tight federal budgets.

The National Park Service and the trust also expect to complete $10 million in renovations this summer to the D.C. War Memorial, which honors the more than 26,000 D.C. residents who served in World War I. For decades, this lesser-known - but no-less-important - tribute to our local service members crumbled in plain sight.

But no longer.

Our work with the National Park Service is just beginning. In November, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the National Mall Plan, an impressive blueprint to restore and modernize the nation’s most popular national park. Earlier this month, former first lady Laura Bush came on board as honorary chairwoman of the trust’s national campaign. Her involvement is a tremendous validation the importance of this beloved park.

As our campaign revs into high gear, we are working with the park service to tackle long-overdue projects, including repairing the Tidal Basin sea wall directly in front of the Jefferson Memorial. The park service also has broken ground at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, where it will install a new leakproof floor and filtration system. Slated for completion in spring 2012, the much-needed Lincoln Memorial upgrades also include permanent security enhancements, an updated lighting system and accessible walkways.

These projects are an exciting start, but the long road ahead will require the passion and dedication of citizens from across the country. But Americans have never been short on passion or dedication, from Washington’s volunteer militia and the armies of Grant and Lincoln who so bravely protected our democracy here at home to the young men who selflessly defended freedom around the globe in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, to our soldiers fighting around the world today,.

This Memorial Day, let’s honor that legacy. Together, let’s make the National Mall the best park in the world.

John E. “Chip” Akridge III is chairman of the Trust for the National Mall.