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Enlist businesses' help in protecting parks

The Baltimore Sun

President Theodore Roosevelt said, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value."

We have not behaved well as a nation with respect to some of our most treasured resources - our national parks. Decades of neglect have taken a heavy toll on them.

However, thanks to the leadership of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the Bush administration's recently announced National Parks Centennial Initiative - and with the faithful support of park champions in Congress, including Maryland's congressional delegation and thousands of national park visitors and advocates - we have an opportunity to remedy the situation.

The administration's 2008 budget, released last month, proposes an additional $258 million to address severe operating shortfalls at the parks. The proposal also, as part of the Centennial Initiative, asks philanthropists and businesses to invest in the national parks by offering a $100 million dollar-for-dollar annual match program for the decade ahead, leading up to the National Park System's 100th anniversary in 2016. Each philanthropic dollar would secure an additional federal dollar.

The match proposal has sparked some controversy. It's legitimate to ask, as a recent Sun editorial did: Will more private and corporate funding for our parks come "with strings attached"?

The great majority of corporations that have invested in park projects have not asked for influence, but have responded generously to very specific requests originating in the parks from friends groups or by the National Park Foundation, which is chartered by Congress to facilitate corporate support for the parks. When the administration and Congress work together to further develop the match proposal, they can ensure that no conditions are attached to gifts.

Last year, the American public firmly told the administration during its controversial attempted rewrite of governing policies for the park system that dangerous new ideas for corporate "presence" in the parks are unwelcome. The result? The relevant policies were strengthened.

Too much is at stake to lose this new opportunity to restore our national parks. The parks struggle with an annual shortfall estimated by the National Parks Conservation Association to exceed $800 million every year. The accumulated backlog of maintenance and preservation needs is staggering.

At nearby national parks, such as Assateague Island National Seashore, Fort McHenry National Monument and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, funding shortfalls are taking a severe toll. Analysis shows that the C&O; Canal has only about 35 cents for every dollar it needs for day-to-day operations, including routine maintenance and visitor safety. Fewer than 200 of the park's nearly 1,400 historic structures are in good condition.

President Gerald R. Ford - who once served as a national park ranger - said: "There is something wonderful about [our national parks]. ... We must act now to prevent the loss of treasures that can never be replaced for ourselves, our children and for generations of Americans."

My parents taught me an awe and reverence for our parks that have never left me. I want to pass on these irreplaceable places to my kids, and to all the kids to come, "not impaired in value." We've lost too much already.

Protecting these national treasures is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue, but a cause that can be embraced by all Americans.

William L. Withuhn, a historian and resident of Lanham, is a member of the National Council of the National Parks Conservation Association. His e-mail is wwithuhn@aol.com.

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