Ninety-six years ago our nation made a profound declaration to set aside the very best it had to offer and to honor the places of our past. From our iconic landscapes and sacred cultural shrines, to the locations that tell the story of our highest achievements and those that mourn our greatest sacrifices, today we know these places as our national parks -- and on Saturday, we honor the men and woman who safeguard them -- the National Park Service.
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Organic Act, formally establishing the National Park Service. The law mandated the future agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Today, the National Park Service is responsible for nearly 400 sites across the country encompassing over 84 million acres. Each park represents an important part of our collective identity. However, the extraordinary mission of the National Park Service extends even further than the parks. The important work of the National Park Service reaches into communities and schools across the country where they work with partners to revitalize neighborhoods and enhance lives.
Currently, however, the National Park Service faces one of the most precarious times in its history. Our parks stand on the frontlines of a changing climate; they face daunting new challenges of a growing population; and they must contend with the relentless march of necessary upkeep and repair. What's more, looming budget cuts threaten the great progress of this extraordinary agency and our nation's most prized possessions.
This is an unacceptable reality, but each and every one of us can do something to change it. Now is the time to act.
Many years after the formation of the National Park Service, Congress made another bold move by creating the National Park Foundation. Its mission was simple -- to provide private support for the National Park Service in the times and ways it needed it most. Since then, the National Park Foundation has carried forth this mandate -- channeling the support of private individuals and organizations, working with the National Park Service, to ensure the very best of America is preserved always.
Today, the National Park Foundation is joined by nearly 150 local charities or "friends groups" across the nation. Together, they provide the backbone of support for our national parks, raising critical funds that go directly into parks and related programs. This year alone, through strategic grants, the National Park Foundation is enabling more 40,000 school children to experience the parks for the first time. Over $30 million has been raised thanks to 200,000 individual donations to build the Flight 93 National Memorial. More than 250 miles of waterways and trails are being restored or improved in parks across the country. Thanks to dedicated programs such as the American Latino Heritage Fund and the African-American Experience Fund the rich, diverse story of America is being more fully told across the National Park System.
These successes are being replicated around the nation as friends groups make a profound impact in the preservation, sustainability and success of our parks on a local level. These critical objectives can only be accomplished if private citizens rise to the occasion and help our national parks when they need it most. As the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service draws closer, the support of volunteers, philanthropists and private citizens will make the critical difference for our national parks.
On this 96th birthday of America's best idea, I invite you to join the community of national park supporters. Visit www.nationalparks.org or discover the national park friends group near you. Together, we can make America's best idea even better.
Follow Neil Mulholland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@GoParks