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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Signs welcoming first lady Laura Bush line the road leading into Zion National Park in Springdale.

ZION NATIONAL PARK — Utah's Dixie greeted Laura Bush on Sunday with its typical mix of sunshine and mild manners as the nation's first lady arrived for a rededication ceremony at Zion National Park.

Bush was invited to speak at the invitation-only event, which was tightly controlled by the Secret Service and took place inside the park at the Zion Nature Center. Bush flew into the Cedar City Regional Airport about 12:30 p.m. before going by motorcade to Zion National Park for her 2 p.m. speech.

Residents of Rockville, a tiny community of fewer than 250 residents, welcomed the first lady by posting American flags every dozen feet or so along state Route 9, which runs straight through the middle of town. A single homemade sign, "Welcome Laura Bush," was taped to a pole at Zion Market in Springdale, a gateway town situated at the park's west entrance. There were no protesters or other visible distractions either inside or outside the park.

Before introducing the first lady, Zion National Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth welcomed the crowd of former and current elected officials, park employees and many people who once worked or lived inside the park.

"I am so happy to be here with you this afternoon at one of our country's great national parks," Bush said after thanking several people in the audience by name for attending the event. "The first park I visited as a child was Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico."

Bush said 20 years ago, when she turned 40, she began hiking in one national park each year with a group of her childhood girlfriends. This year, she said, the group of friends, who were sitting in the front row, will get to know Zion National Park.

"I am looking forward to it," she said. "At Zion, as in other parks around the United States, there are dedicated employees and volunteers who are working hard to preserve America. This is something President Bush and I care very much about."

Bush urged Americans to take their children on trips to see the country's more than 300 national parks, monuments, battlefields and other protected places.

"Yesterday was the first-ever Junior Ranger Day. This program brings children across the nation into our parks, either in person or as Web rangers," she said. "Zion National Park has one of the oldest junior ranger programs in the nation. Last year more than 7,000 young people took part in it by going to the park, just like my mother took me to Carlsbad Caverns."

Bush promised audience members that if they would take their children to a national park, they would "make great memories."

"We recently took our daughters on a trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and found out it was a lot harder to hike out now," she said. "The old mothers made it out in about seven hours while the daughters made it out in four hours."

Also speaking at the event was U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who said Laura Bush had raised the profile of the Junior Ranger program.

"She wants every child to be connected to our shared heritage," he said. "Zion National Park is living history, it's an expression of who we are as a nation."

The $500,000 renovation of the Zion Nature Center was largely paid for by entry fees gathered at the park, he noted.

The Nature Center was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and built in 1934 as a cafeteria for the rustic guest cabins nearby. While the cabins are gone, the building underwent a two-year rehabilitation effort to make it more accessible and return it to its original appearance.

Kempthorne also praised the National Park Centennial Initiative, a multiyear, nearly $3 billion infusion of public and private funding to be spent on the national park system in preparation for its 100th anniversary in 2016.

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com