THE BLOG
04/20/2011 10:27 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People

Do you know how many national parks there are?

394. Surprised? When we think 'national parks,' we often recall the spectacle of places like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. While both of these places are truly awe-inspiring, they represent only a small fraction of the 84 million acres that make up our national parks. Our national parks come in many shapes and sizes, each with their own unique, compelling stories to tell, yet each shares a common undeniable fact -- they all belong to you. As an American, you are the owner of some of the most treasured places on earth, and like the generations before us, it is our responsibility to ensure our national parks are safeguarded for the future.

Without the dedication, foresight and generosity of Americans throughout history, our national parks would not exist. It is a profound and quintessentially American ideal -- that we set aside our most beloved places, not so they may be exclusively enjoyed by royalty or the rich, but so they may be enjoyed by everyone. It has been a cornerstone of the creation and preservation of America's national parks since the first, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. Carved into the arch at its entrance is a simple statement that has guided us for years, "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

This week we celebrate National Park Week. It's an opportunity for every individual to visit any one of our national parks for free, to learn about their history, and to take the time to get involved. This month we also begin a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, beginning with the first shots fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Like Fort Sumter, a national monument preserved and protected by the National Park Service since 1948, many of our national parks stand as physical reminders of our highest ideals, as well as our greatest sacrifices. As we recognize these two milestones -- National Park Week and the Civil War Sesquicentennial -- let us pause to remember what these places mean, and the people they honor.

It is in this spirit that I would like to mention one very special national park unit. Not unlike the Civil War or many other war memorials we cherish, this place is sacred ground, the final resting place of 40 brave souls that made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. These individuals were not generals or soldiers, but rather, ordinary people that became extraordinary heroes. The passengers and crew of United Flight 93 saved our nation's capital and countless lives on September 11, 2001. Determined to make a difference, they valiantly fought back against their hijackers, ultimately crashing their plane in a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Today the crash site sits in waiting, destined to become one of our newest national parks -- the Flight 93 National Memorial. Like the generations before us, this national park will only be complete with the help and determination of the American people. Ten years after this terrible tragedy, while memorials in New York and at the Pentagon are fully funded, the Flight 93 National Memorial stands at risk. With millions left to raise, the Flight 93 National Memorial needs the same determination and generosity Americans have shown throughout history to guarantee that these 40 heroes, and their story, will never be forgotten.

I hope everyone takes the time to enjoy National Park Week, but as you do, remember the legacy that has cared for our parks for generations. It is now our turn to preserve our history and to safeguard our most prized possession -- our national parks.

For more information on how you can support the Flight 93 National Memorial, I invite you to visit www.honorflight93.org. And, for more information about National Park Week, visit www.nationalparkweek.org.