Veterans Benefit From Land and Water Conservation Fund | Commentary

A few months ago, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Army hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail to bring attention to the needs of fellow veterans re-entering civilian life. Having served seven tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chris Davis told a reporter that getting outdoors resonates with veterans. “We walk a lot in the military and a veteran sitting at home can identify with someone throwing a backpack on and walking for 2,000 miles.”

That grit and determination reflects the tenacity of veterans nationwide, many of whom, like Davis, are turning to parks and national public lands to find the inspiration to, as he says, “Always keep moving forward, one step at a time.”

For thousands of service members, nature offers solace and peace and the opportunity to heal. Hiking, camping, hunting and fishing with friends and family is time to reconnect and re-enter civilian life. Research shows that time outdoors can have positive health impacts on post-traumatic stress disorder and stress, and numerous programs are now available nationwide to take veterans fishing, hunting, hiking, horse-back riding, and help them enjoy other forms of other outdoor recreation.

In fact, a U.S. Army initiative called Warrior Adventure Quest takes soldiers returning from war on outdoor adventures to places such as Denali National Park to assist with re-integration, as well as team building and unit cohesion.

Fortunately, many of the national and local parks and public lands where these vital forms of therapy take place have been protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including the Appalachian Trail, Denali National Park in Alaska, the Angeles National Forest in California, Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon and the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho.

Local parks and playgrounds in every state,as well as our nation’s most majestic national parks and forests and Civil War battlefields, have been protected with help from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In 1965, Congress passed the law creating the Land and Water Conservation Fund with the intent that conserving our national public lands for the enjoyment of all Americans would offset the offshore depletion of other taxpayer-owned resources: oil and gas.

Although authorized to receive up to $900 million annually in royalties paid by companies drilling offshore, instead, Congress raids the fund and uses the money for other purposes.

It is a promise made to the American taxpayers, and broken — year after year. At this point, the Land and Water Conservation Fund only receives about a third of that authorized total annually.

Worse yet, the Land and Water Conservation Fund expires in 2015 and Congress hasn’t done much about it. That inaction and chronic underfunding has implications for the conservation of wildlife habitat and clean water. It impacts the $646 billion outdoor recreation industry and local economies that depend on the public being able to access and enjoy parks and national public lands, instead of being boxed out by development. And it affects our veterans.

In a recent bipartisan poll conducted for the Vet Voice Foundation, 80 percent of Western veterans express support for funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The self-identified partisan composition for the survey was 45 percent Republican, 24 percent Democrat, and 20 percent independent.

Our service members depend on the protection of our parks and national public lands. I urge my fellow veterans to join me in calling on Congress to fund and reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It protects our history and outdoor heritage for the benefit of our veterans and all Americans.

Brig. Gen. Steven M. Anderson retired in April 2010 after a 31-year career in the U.S. Army that included logistics command and staff assignments in Korea, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Germany, Hawaii and four tours in the Pentagon.