A love for one’s country must also include a love for its lands. There is patriotism in defending our public lands, which define who we are as Americans. They are the embodiment of our democracy and the tangible America that the military and veteran community swore to protect.
As veterans, our connection to America’s public lands and heritage is a deeply rooted one. From the Buffalo Soldiers to Teddy Roosevelt and David Brower, veterans have long played key roles in ensuring the conservation of our natural and historical treasures for future generations. Veterans have an overwhelming appreciation for the land and natural history they defend as members of the military, and those lands also provide crucial resources for veterans transitioning into civilian life.
Each year, more than 200,000 service-members exit the military, oftentimes without the proper support to succeed in civilian life. Programs like Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors and Outward Bound for Veterans help veterans find a renewed purpose through a connection to our public lands. Shared outdoor experiences allow veterans to make interpersonal connections with others within their community.
Unfortunately, our public lands are currently being stolen from beneath our feet at an alarming rate. Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field’s worth of natural area to more development. To top that, the current administration continues to double down on attacks on our wild spaces. With threats to shrink national monument protections in a big way and proposed hikes on entrance fees for national parks, they want to lock up our public lands for everyday Americans and hand them to destructive industry.
National parks and monuments provide places for reflection and healing. These unique areas ensure that all Americans can explore and enjoy the beauty of our natural landscapes. Visitors can learn about America's struggle and Indigenous cultures at national monuments, experience the wild and dreamlike retreat at parks and simply benefit from the health advantages of time spent outside. These are places where each and every person should feel welcome.
The national monuments that could be significantly shrunk and the national parks that will be much more expensive to enter are an issue of racial and social justice. For example, Bears Ears was protected due to an agreement between a historic inter-tribal coalition between five sovereign Tribal Nations, local communities and government. To efface these sacred spaces is to reverse a small step towards reparations with America’s Tribal Nations. Similarly, research shows just how many barriers children and underserved communities have when it comes to accessing national parks. Making entrance more expensive only worsens the issue. With these moves, Zinke is proving that this administration serves a sole constituency: the privileged and the rich.
But do not be fooled, national monuments and parks already belong to you – to us. They are our birthright as Americans. Rescinding their protection will open these lands up for privatization drilling and mining leases that will scar the land and ruin it for generations to come.
Public lands, parks and monuments should not be sold out to those who would destroy, degrade or dismantle them, but preserved for the unique opportunities they offer the broader public. Now more than ever before, we should be working to make them more accessible for younger generations and our nation’s returning veterans. But that’s something that Sec. Zinke completely disrespects with his plans to shrink our monuments and make our national parks for the elite.
If Zinke had truly listened to the public and acted in our best interest, he should have concluded, as we have, that instead of shrinking our country’s network of protected public lands and making them more difficult to enjoy, we should be looking for ways to expand our outdoor legacy. We must ensure more veterans, and all Americans, have access to the benefits provided by spending time outside in these places, whether it be like Bears Ears or Yosemite. We will continue the fight for our public lands to serve Americans today and future generations.
Rob Vessels is an Army veteran and a manager for the Sierra Club's Military Outdoors Program.