Why the Solar Decathlon should forsake the Mall

Friday, February 4, 2011; 8:26 PM

IMAGINE HAVING a piece of property that has deteriorated through the years. You've finally undertaken major repairs, but there's a clamor for you to host guests whose wear and tear would badly undermine that work and further degrade the property. That's exactly the situation the National Park Service finds itself in as it is being pressured to make the Mall available for an event that - no matter how terrific - would harm ongoing efforts to restore America's most precious park.

At issue is the Solar Decathlon, a popular event sponsored by the Energy Department that brings top collegiate teams together for a competition to build the best solar house. Since its start in 2002, the biennial event has taken place in the center grass of the Mall. It's an extraordinarily popular event, with visitors able to tour the 20 full-size models for energy-saving ideas that hopefully they will replicate in their own homes. However, in years past the event has done enormous damage to the Mall. Huge trucks and heavy equipment have left big gouges and holes, and the heavy foot traffic has done its own damage to the turf.

Consequentially, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, with the understanding of the Energy Department, decided that the Mall could not host this year's competition. Organizers say that they are looking for alternate sites for the event, which will be scheduled for September and October, and we hope it will stay in Washington. The decision has resulted in predictable howls of protest, and there are efforts underway to get President Obama to step in and reverse the decision. It's important that he stand by Mr. Salazar's wise decision.

This is not, as some are trying to frame the issue, a question of the administration's commitment to clean-energy technologies. Mr. Salazar, for one, has championed a number of exciting new renewable-energy initiatives, including approval of the first solar project ever permitted on public lands.

This is a simple matter of whether the Mall - long revered as the country's "front yard" - will be restored to its former glory and maintained for future generations. Years of neglect and overuse have caused the Mall to become a national disgrace, and finally there's recognition of the need to fix conditions. As The Post's Michael E. Ruane recently reported, work has started on important projects such as replacing the Lincoln Reflecting Pool and repairing the 1931 D.C. War Memorial. Finding a more appropriate site for the Solar Decathlon furthers the Mall improvement efforts and is in keeping with the decathlon's own enviable goal of being smarter about the environment.

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