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GUEST COLUMN: Reflecting on the importance of our national parks

By: Garrett Reppenhagen
April 14, 2017 Updated: April 25, 2017 at 8:08 am
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Returning home after over 160 sniper missions in Iraq, I instinctively took to the outdoors to escape, find solace and reflect on my war experience. It allowed me to transition from being a combat soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom to civilian life away from the war zone. I see the healing powers working when a rugged three-tour Marine Corps veteran with a stoic posture hits a park trail and, as we lose sight of the parking area, his inner child emerges as he walks across logs and splashes through streams. More than just anecdotal evidence suggests veterans benefit from outdoor recreation. Research from University of Michigan has found that one week after an outdoor experience "veterans reported a greater than 10 percent improvement in several measures of psychological well-being."

As a veteran, I am looking forward to National Park Week on April 15-23. The celebration presents an excellent opportunity to reflect on the importance of our national parks to former servicemen like me, as well as all Americans.

As writer and historian Wallace Stegner once said, America's national parks are " . the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." The parks are part of our American landscape and the freedoms we, as service members, fought to protect.

Unfortunately, at this time our national park sites need significant help to uphold their physical integrity, with an estimated $12 billion of deferred maintenance needs throughout the national park system. If this maintenance backlog is not addressed, it will adversely affect the ability of all Americans, to enjoy the places that make our country truly great.

This year, the national park service is entering its second century as caretaker to our nation's beautiful landscapes and cultural legacies, but they are struggling to fix the crumbling infrastructure in many of the places. Fortunately, the National Park Service Legacy Act, S.751, was recently introduced into Congress by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. This legislation would establish a desperately needed federal fund with the sole purpose of drawing down the national park maintenance backlog.

In these days of partisan politics, it often seems near impossible to find common ground between political parties. Fortunately, national parks are supported by all Americans - Republicans and Democrats alike. In fact, it's not just veterans or environmentalists who support fixing our parks: 93 percent of Coloradans support improving and repairing infrastructure in national parks and outdoor destinations.

Given the overwhelming support for our national parks here in Colorado and across the country, I urge sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet to support this crucial bipartisan piece of legislation. Our national parks are indeed one of our most valuable resources, and we must ensure they continue to exist for the benefit of future generations.

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Garett Reppenhagen is a local Iraq War veteran.

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