Protecting public lands gives our veterans a place to go for healing

 ·  Don Edwards, Bangor Daily News   ·   Link to Article

After 37 years in the Army, including multiple deployments to Vietnam, I returned home to serve for a decade in the Army Reserves until I was appointed as adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard. I’m retired now, but when I learn about an issue that affects those who served our country, I do what I can to help.

That’s why I’m speaking today in defense of our protected public lands and national monuments, including Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Penobscot County. I feel compelled to stand up for our lands because they are actively under attack.

In December, President Donald Trump and his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke (another veteran), traveled to Utah to announce 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 a disgrace.

By shrinking these two monuments in Utah, Trump and Zinke made clear their disregard for wild landscapes that have been explicitly protected for the access, enjoyment and benefit of present and future generations. This attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is an attack on all our monuments and our confidence that our treasured places will remain protected in perpetuity.

As an Army veteran living in South Bristol, I spend most of my days enjoying the Maine outdoors. Hiking, fishing, kayaking and canoeing, and getting out on the ocean with my wife in our active fishing community is peaceful and deeply rewarding. Maine is special for many reasons, but two are especially important for me — it is a state with abundant recreation opportunities and an active and thriving veteran community. (Our state has one of the highest populations of veterans per capita in the country.)

And make no mistake — national monuments are crucial to veterans. Throughout my life, whenever I have felt stress, I have sought out peace outdoors. To me, it feels like going to church. I know many fellow veterans who feel the same way, find a deep sense of serenity in our protected lands and use these places for healing after returning from active deployment. These places can provide us with the peace and space we need to process what our service has exposed us to, including the mental and physical stress unique to being a veteran.

Last year, Zinke initiated a review of 27 different monuments, including Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters. His recommendations to Trump included the shrinkage of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Though Zinke recommended no changes to Katahdin Woods and Waters, Trump has the final say and could attack this special place.

Like any attack on our national monuments, that would be a disgrace. People in larger numbers have started visiting the monument, adjacent to beloved Baxter State Park. In addition to being host to a great variety of recreational uses for Maine veterans and others, it has the potential to be a significant economic boost in the Katahdin region, which needs it. The relationship between economics and public lands is just beginning to be explored, and the numbers are promising. Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that the American outdoor recreation economy accounts for 2 percent of our total GDP, or $373 billion annually.

Our public lands are a treasure, and as we grow in population, there will be fewer and fewer places where we have access to wild landscapes in our country. These days, not all Americans have the platform to have their voices heard in defense of our protected lands, such as the numerous tribal leaders whose defense of Bears Ears was ignored. But I believe veterans have earned the opportunity to speak out and have our opinions heard.

My hope, along with many other veterans who rely on our national monuments and other protected public lands for peace and recreation, is that the president and interior secretary will cease this sacrilegious attack.

Maj. Gen. Don Edwards was the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard from 1981 to 1997. He served in the Army from 1951 to 1971, including two tours in Vietnam, and later joined the Army Reserve. From 1975 to 1981, he was a member of the Vermont House of Representatives. He lives in South Bristol.