06/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

National Parks Vital to Preserving America's Great Outdoors

Last week, as we celebrated National Parks Week and the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar waived entrance fees to national park sites across the country, making it even easier and more affordable for Americans to connect with our natural and cultural heritage.

On behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, the leading voice for our national parks, I was invited to attend the recent White House Conference on America's Great Outdoors. I heard first-hand the Obama Administration's plans to address the challenges and opportunities surrounding modern-day land conservation and the importance of reconnecting American families to the outdoors.

The conference brought together a diverse group of about 500 conservationists, local community, and recreation leaders with the ultimate goal of building new partnerships and creating new ideas to safeguard our nation's irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage.

Conference attendees agreed on the importance of providing quality outdoor recreation opportunities and protecting the nation's rapidly disappearing open space in light of threats, ranging from climate change to urban development.

Moving forward, we hope the Obama Administration makes national parks a cornerstone in any forward-thinking initiative on public lands. Our national parks have an important role to play in land conservation, wildlife protection, outdoor recreation, and education opportunities for children and adults. From the volcanoes in Hawaii to the Great Smoky Mountains, our national parks provide some of the best means of connecting Americans, young and old, to America's Great Outdoors.

For example, places like the Santa Monica Mountains, San Antonio Missions, Yellowstone, and the Appalachian Trail can inspire kids to get active and lead healthy lives, connect with the outdoors, and learn about America's heritage in the process. At Santa Monica Mountains, the world's largest urban national park, students from Los Angeles volunteer their time to help the Park Service restore native plants. Our national parks are classrooms for discovery and learning for students and teachers.

And given the reality that more than a million acres of land are developed each year and no longer available to preserve for the public to enjoy, the Administration should use this opportunity to evaluate areas that deserve more protection and promote better policies to ensure that future generations can breathe clean air, hear the sounds of nature, and enjoy scenic views for years to come.

America's Great Outdoors can provide the opportunity to work collaboratively with other federal, regional, state, and local agencies, as well as private landowners, to provide better protection for these special lands. Many solid programs are already under way, and the Administration should learn from, replicate, and expand these efforts.

Lastly, for this process to amount to more than mere dialogue, the Administration must be prepared to put meaningful funding behind its initiatives, for programs that actually protect land, provide assistance to communities, and put park rangers on the ground serving school and youth groups.

Americans want to leave our country to the next generation in better shape than we received it, and many are worried that may not happen. America's Great Outdoors can provide an opportunity to make sure it happens, by helping us connect and ensuring that enough national parks and other wildlands remain for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Tom Kiernan, President
National Parks Conservation Association