May 26, 1999

Last week, I became an honorary Park Ranger. How proud I was to join the ranks of "the green and the gray," the dedicated men and women who care for this country's most important historical and natural wonders.

The occasion was a visit to the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the last stop on my Southwest Treasures Tour -- a four-day visit to some of that region's natural, scientific, historical and artistic treasures.

Mesa Verde encompasses 4,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings -- the greatest concentration of pre-Columbian cliff dwellings in the world.

As I visited the largest, called Cliff Palace, I tried to imagine what it must have been like more than a hundred years ago when the first non-native people happened on the unexpected site -- an alcove concealing more than 100 rooms. What they discovered was the remains of a rich and complex culture that once included thousands of people who thrived on farming, weaving and baking. Today, that culture is preserved in the spiritual life, weaving and pottery of the 24 Native American tribes that trace their ancestors to Mesa Verde.

But Mesa Verde itself is in danger of being lost to erosion, exposure and the impact of millions of visitors, and if it disappears, it will take a piece of the nation's collective memory with it. That's why it's so important for Americans to protect such treasures for future generations.

In Colorado, I met a very special group of preservationists who are doing just that. For three years, the third graders of the Foothills Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., have raised money to help save Mesa Verde by doing extra chores and selling "Adopt a Ruin" calendars they make themselves.

One of the students explained why this project is so important to her: "I think 'Adopt a Ruin' is a good idea because in 40 years my kids will probably want to see the ruins, so I want to save the ruins," she wrote. "So far, I have raised $15. ... The best part of this is when I grow up, I think it will be great to see the expression on my kids' faces."

No one could have captured the reason for preserving Mesa Verde -- and all of America's cultural, historical and natural treasures -- better than this third-grader. It is this very spirit that the President and I hoped would take hold of the country's imagination when we created the White House Millennium Council -- choosing as our theme "Honor the Past -- Imagine the Future" -- and when we launched the Save America's Treasures program.

Over the course of the past year, I have been privileged to travel around the country, visiting some of our most precious landmarks. And I have watched with incredible pride as a network of private and public individuals and groups -- from the third graders at Foothills Elementary to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and corporate donors like Polo Ralph Lauren, General Electric and American Express -- has mobilized to ensure that these chapters of our history are never forgotten.

We launched the first "Save America's Treasures" tour last summer in front of the Star-Spangled Banner in Washington. Since then, I've visited a number of sites -- Louis Armstrong's house in Queens, N.Y., the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, Calif., and many more.

At every stop, I've witnessed a celebration, not just of a prized local treasure but of our democracy, our citizenship and the richness of the American mind and spirit. On last week's tour, though, there was even more, reminding me of the diverse cultural heritage that is the heart and soul of our nation.

At the Grand Canyon, I announced new public support for a portion of the Grand Canyon Greenway, a 73-mile network of trails that will bring walkers, hikers and those in wheelchairs closer to the wonders of the Grand Canyon. In Flagstaff, Ariz., I was awestruck by the sight of Mars through a 100-year-old telescope at the Lowell Observatory.

In New Mexico, I visited the Palace of the Governors -- the oldest public building in the United States. I traveled to Albuquerque, where people have come together to adopt the Southwest Pieta sculpture, teaching their children about art, preservation and their very rich cultural heritage in the process. And, at the Pueblo of Acoma in the midst of a vital Native American community, I toured one of the oldest churches still standing on American soil.

What I have learned in the last year is that historical preservation is not only about saving physical objects. It is also about saving our living heritage, our values and our culture so that we can pass them on to future generations. Just as Park Rangers are caretakers of our national parks, we are all caretakers of our history.



April 29, 1997