You’re right, Senator Schatz. Veteran Conservation Advocacy is Cool

 ·  Dolpha Freeman, Vet Voice Foundation | Medium   ·   Link to Article

U.S. Navy veteran Dolpha Freeman

Last spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Vet Voice Foundation to advocate for full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). My fellow veterans and I criss-crossed Capitol Hill over three days, meeting with elected officials and staff — communicating directly with them the special relationship between veterans and the outdoors, particularly our nation’s public lands.

The relationship between veterans and public lands is long-standing and well documented in recent years. And for good reason. Time spent outdoors (as we’ve all become more aware of during the COVD-19 global pandemic) is mentally, physically, and spiritually healing. Veterans recognize this — whether Teddy Roosevelt and his conservation advocacy, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer (the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to “walk the war off”), to veterans today, who, like me, have made it a point to get outside with friends and family, as well as lent our voice to advocacy efforts.

It was with this in mind that a recent event that VoteVets held with U.S. Senator Brian Schatz brought a smile to my face from the multiple insightful comments. During the conversation, which was centered on public lands and the environment, Senator Schatz remarked:

“It’s cool to me that a veterans’ group understands the nexus between veterans’ issues and conservation issues.”

To hear directly from a U.S. Senator that the advocacy my fellow veterans and I have undertaken matters made the miles of walking the halls of the Capitol more than worth it (in dress shoes and a suit rather than hiking boots and gear appropriate for the trail). And Senator Schatz isn’t the only one to make comments like this. In fact, during an event following the passage of The Great American Outdoors Act, which included full funding for LWCF, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján made a point of noting the work veterans had done to help get that legislation across the finish line. This added to the chorus of other elected officials recognizing veterans’ advocacy during the debate over The Great American Outdoors Act, including comments from the House floor by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the bill’s lead, Representative Joe Cunningham.

I care deeply about our nation’s public lands and the equipoise that they can provide to all. I have spent half my adult life abroad and, as such, I have a unique appreciation for them. America’s National Park Service is unparalleled and a proud reflection of our nation’s deep regard for the land and waterways that have literally and figuratively shaped our history. The United States has led the world with our park system and is in a position to continue to do so with proper leadership and management.

When my wife and I were deciding where to raise our two children, the wildlands and nature of the United States played a major role in our decision to settle down in New York’s Hudson River Valley. New York is home to thousands of acres of the great outdoors, supported by $355.9 million in grants from the LWCF. Near to home are Sylvan Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks, both a paradise for hikers. And just south in New York City, famed Central Park has benefited from millions in LWCF funding.

Am I willing to continue advocating to make sure that our public lands are protected, presently and for generations to come? You better believe it. But, to be clear, advocacy is a lot easier when it’s recognized and when one hears directly from decision-makers that it matters.

I’m thankful for those elected officials who’ve advocated alongside veterans and other allies to protect our public lands. I’m thankful for an organization like the Vet Voice Foundation that provides veterans a place to come together to get our voices heard in debates. I’m thankful for our nation’s treasured public lands.

I look forward to spending more time with my fellow veterans — on a hike and on Capitol Hill.

Dolpha Freeman is a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1991–1998 and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He lives in Chestnut Ridge, New York.