Sunday, July 15, 2007

As people across the nation recently celebrated the Fourth of July, extended families crossing several generations gathered together to commemorate the Founding of our country and our great Declaration of Independence. Kids only knee-high know the day as “Independence Day” and showed their support by dressing head to toe in the colors of our flag.

It is a fitting way to acknowledge our forefathers, the early patriots who risked their lives and fortunes to ensure that the government of the United States would be run according to the wishes of the people.

Those brave men and women weren’t fighting only for liberty and freedom for their families but to guarantee that their children and their children’s children could live proud and free in this blessed country. Their courageous sacrifice on behalf of future generations paved the way for new groups of Americans, patriots in their own right, who would continue to shape our young nation.

Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who worked tirelessly to secure equal rights and civil liberties; engineers and inventors like Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright and Henry Ford whose sharp minds and profound vision helped our nation to prosper; world-renowned writers and artists like Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Cole and Ansel Adams, who transformed our culture with their creativity and passion. Their stories and the inspiring stories of other great Americans are preserved today in our national parks.

More than a century ago, another group of ordinary American citizens did something unprecedented. They proclaimed more than 2 million acres of Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park set aside unimpaired for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Today, America’s nearly 400 national parks span 84 million acres, provide refuge to 369 endangered species, and house more than 100 million items in museum collections.

From the extraordinary natural landscapes of Yosemite to the Grand Canyon to Rocky Mountain National Park, to other places of historical importance like Gettysburg, Mesa Verde, and Independence Hall, our national parks not only chronicle the story of America, they are the world’s greatest collection of natural, historic and cultural resources.

But our national parks are not just places to be revered. Instead, our parks have an active role to play in our society building and bridging communities and connecting our children in meaningful outdoor experiences that can be life-changing. Our parks provide infinite educational opportunities for students at all levels in the areas of the sciences, history, geography and ecology.

They conserve our natural resources and protect some of the most pristine wilderness on Earth. Our national parks are very much a part of who we are as Americans and, ultimately, reflect the vitality and the priorities of our nation.

President Theodore Roosevelt set the expectation when he said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

Protecting and supporting this vital system is a shared responsibility that Americans have always embraced. It is only in strengthening our approach to private philanthropy through foundations, corporations and the invaluable contributions of everyday citizens that we will be able to sustain our parks, perpetuate their great history and ensure their existence for future generations.

Ordinary Americans were the driving force behind the birth of our national parks more than 100 years ago — and each of us, today, is equally critical to their future.

Let us count the blessing of freedom, not just on the Fourth of July, but every day. And let us also remember our duty to preserve the greatest of our natural and national resources and rededicate ourselves to our national parks.

Instill in your family a love of this great land by visiting and sharing these irreplaceable places together. Volunteer. Support the charitable organizations that fund the good works going on in the parks every day.

What is required of us to secure our national parks’ future is well worth the investment to guarantee such a priceless treasure for our children and theirs.


Retired U.S. Army general, member of the board of the National Park Foundation and a former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command.

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