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GUEST COLUMN: America's great public lands deserve protection

By: Garett Reppenhagen
November 4, 2017 Updated: November 20, 2017 at 2:42 pm
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From 2001 to 2005, I served as a Scout Sniper in the Army Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division - initially as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and later for a yearlong combat tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Often, I'd lay in a sniper position for days, battling tedium and the gnawing anticipation of enemy contact at any moment. 

To ease my mind and keep my reflexes ready, I'd imagine myself in places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. I'd re-create the immense awe I'd felt when I encountered these majestic national treasures and remind myself of how much they formed a part of my identity as a Westerner and an American. Even as I served thousands of miles away, it was part of my mission as a soldier to protect these lands.

After I finished my service, I went to those places in person to heal psychologically and transition back to civilian life, a journey that so many veterans have struggled mightily - and, too often, tragically - to make.

These lands saved my life. So I've made it my life's work to save them. I've joined efforts to maintain these national parks and monuments. And I've mobilized hundreds of thousands of other veterans like me to experience them for their personal renewal and work for their preservation and protection.

Leaders in Congress and the Trump Administration have gone to extraordinary lengths this year to unravel safeguards against development in many of our most precious and fragile wild places. That has triggered a growing feeling of anger and hopelessness among the veterans I work with. Like me, they think that the places the fought for are being sold off to for the profit of energy companies. And they see our representatives in Washington paying more heed to energy companies than to the people like them, who believe in common-sense policies to protect our iconic lands.

Those leaders might respect veterans for the personal sacrifices we've made to the country, but they're misunderstanding that, regardless of background or ideological outlook, most veterans strongly support protecting our most previous wild places. A survey a few years ago for the Vet Voice Foundation confirms that more than 75 percent of Western U.S. veterans favor federal protection of public lands by designating them as national parks, monuments, or wilderness. Two-thirds believe the government must carefully weigh the impact of energy development leases on local recreation and wildlife habitat.

Our leaders in Washington are apparently oblivious that, like most Americans, veterans are deeply troubled by renewed efforts to allow exploitation of the Arctic National Wilderness Refuge. On Oct. 19, the U.S. Senate passed a backdoor maneuver to allow oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In spite of advocacy from my group, one of my senators, Cory Gardner, unfortunately supported this assault on the ecologically fragile refuge to appease Alaska's congressional delegation and a host of oil companies. To his credit, my other senator, Michael Bennet, led ultimately unsuccessful efforts to stop the bill's passage.

The thirst to drill more in the refuge and similarly protected lands is puzzling at a time when the U.S. creates enough oil and gas for energy independence and, increasingly, to sell overseas.

About a year and a half ago, I led a group of veterans on a 12-day canoe trip down the Canning River through the Arctic Refuge. Even as we drank in the area's extraordinary beauty, we saw polar bears wandering around, far from their natural habitat, displaced by the effects of climate change.

We also saw, at the end of our journey, Point Thomson. That's where ExxonMobile extracts tens of thousands of barrels of natural gas a day, and where the state of Alaska recently rejected the company's plans to expand operations. After our immersion in natural paradise, the sight of Point Thomson was a heartbreaking shock to our systems. For the longest time, all eight of us just stood and stared in silence at this blight on an otherwise unblemished landscape and at clearest and most present threat to our wildest lands across the U.S.

When I fought overseas for my country, I wasn't doing it to allow our government to sell off and destroy the very places that saved my life. That's why I'm fighting now to stop the disastrous encroachment on America's most precious heritage.

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Garett Reppenhagen, Rocky Mountain Director of the Vet Voice Foundation, which mobilizes veterans to become leaders in our nation's democracy through participation in the civic process. He lives in Colorado Springs.

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