For our country's veterans, access to public lands represents freedom

 ·  Joshua Werkheiser, Helena Independent Record   ·   Link to Article

For countless Americans around the country, access to the outdoors represents freedom. We are born as owners of our national parks, national monuments, and other protected public lands. The ability to recreate in our public lands and waters is one of the great gifts that all Americans are granted, as they are managed by our government for our benefit. As a veteran who served in the Army with the 509th Airborne Infantry, I know how important these protected public lands are to those who served this country in the armed services.

I join my fellow veterans from across the country to speak out in vehement disagreement with President Trump for his attack on our freedom to enjoy our protected public lands. In December, President Trump and his Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke (another veteran), traveled to Utah and announced the biggest reduction in protected lands in American history, slashing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This attack on our monuments is misguided and disappointing, and must stop.

National monuments have for over 100 years protected our wild landscapes and most important historic sites, including sites that commemorated our military history. They are places that are important not only to veterans, but all Americans. This attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is an attack on all our monuments, on our confidence that our treasured places will indeed remain protected in perpetuity. 

I am not someone who pays much attention to politics, but I love the outdoors and I keep my ears open to issues that affect my outdoor access. This is certainly the first time in my lifetime that someone has shrunk a national monument. My biggest fear, and why I am lending my voice to this conversation, is that once President Trump and Secretary Zinke have attacked these places, what’s stopping him from doing it to other national monuments in Montana like the Missouri River Breaks or Pompey’s Pillar? It’s a terrifying slippery slope that could affect our most treasured landscapes in Montana and across America.

The relationship between our protected lands and veterans is deep and mutually beneficial. When we are going through the transition from military life to civilian, we seek to return back to what we knew before our time in the service. For many of us, including me, that means a return to the outdoors, to the landscapes we treasure. These landscapes, including national monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, provide veterans with unimaginably important mental health benefits. It's where we go to process, to heal, and reflect in solitude on our experiences while in the military. In turn, veterans are some of the greatest advocates for the continued protection of these places -- because we know how sacred they can be.

No one needs to lecture Secretary Zinke on public service. It’s an honor to have a fellow veteran, and fellow Marine at that, at the helm of the Department of Interior. His commitment to his country is unquestionable and we are grateful for his service. This is, in part, why his actions are so disappointing. Commander Zinke should know as well as anyone as an outdoorsman and veteran the value of protecting land and ensuring that outdoor access is preserved, not limited. His alignment with special interests looking to exploit these wild Utah landscapes for monetary gain is short-sighted and reprehensible.

Last year, Mr. Zinke launched the monument reduction process by first initiating a "review" of 27 different monuments protected since 1996. His recommendations based on this review included the shrinkage of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to President Trump. In addition to cutting back these great American treasures, Mr. Zinke has encouraged President Trump to shrink two more monuments -- Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. This would be a deeply misguided and insulting decision to continue to undermine our conservation lands.

It is a new year, and members of the House of Representatives and Senate are returning to Washington for the start of the 2nd session of the 115th Congress. My hope, along with many other veterans who have relied on our national monuments and other protected public lands for peace, solitude, recreation and more, is that the President and Secretary Zinke will stop attacking our outdoor heritage. Our leaders should listen to its citizens, including those who fought for this country in defense of its fellow Americans’ liberties. That includes keeping our monuments open and accessible to all. The attacks on our monuments must stop.