updated 11/2/2006 12:29:25 PM ET 2006-11-02T17:29:25

The National Park Service is preparing to nip and tuck at the nation's seat of power. As caretaker of the National Mall, Park Service officials want to know what visitors want from the nation's premier, but well-worn spot for remembering, celebrating and rallying.

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They ask that people speak up, log on and turn out for a monthslong, $800,000 planning process.

"Our goal is to keep the monuments, memorials, recreation and park spaces of the National Mall as beautiful and as accessible as possible," said Vikki Keys, the Park Service's superintendent of the National Mall.

Daily wear and tear
That's a major challenge, with more visitors converging on the 2-mile-long mall each year than at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks combined.

"As you can imagine, 25 million visitors adds up to a lot of wear and tear," Park Service Director Mary Bomar said.

Three to four tons of trash are left at and removed from the mall every day. There's scattered parking, and just 300 acres of turf, 47 drinking fountains and 100 restrooms.

The mall extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the west front of the Capitol, and from the White House to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin. Its formal spaces draw on landscape traditions of European capitals, but are crafted to showcase American democracy.

A place where history is made and celebrated
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett called it America's front lawn.

"Here, Americans through our nation's history have exercised their First Amendment rights," she said. "They assemble, the speak freely, they contemplate the values and achievements of this nation, of the people, by the people and for the people. The mall is a place where history is both made and celebrated."

They also run and bike and toss Frisbees, softballs, volleyballs and rugby balls there, or gaze at movies, fireworks and stars. Debate over whether to expand the elm tree-lined mall - and how freely people can enjoy it in the post-9/11 era - remains an issue. The U.S. Park Police use surveillance security cameras to cover most of it by day.

"People will be able to continue to come to Washington and express their constitutional rights. It's our job to ensure that," said Dwight Pettiford, the park police chief.

Master plan for the future
Congress passed a 2003 law intended to prevent overbuilding by declaring the National Mall a completed work of civic art. But the law itself contained an inherent contradiction: exemptions that allowed construction of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Advocacy groups say Congress should create a national commission like one last convened in 1901 to coordinate planning among all federal and city agencies responsible for the mall. Some urge that it be expanded into nearby parks and across the Potomac River in Virginia.

"We can't stop history from happening," said Judy Scott Feldman, who chairs the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. "The master plan for the future has to say, `Let's expand again.'"

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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