Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2019

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National monuments heal and inspire

When I joined the Air Force in 1977, I took seriously the oath to protect and defend the Constitution and the country it created.

Our national heritage derives not just from principles of government but from the land that sustains us. America’s wild places — our ancient forests, colorful deserts, rushing rivers and snowcapped mountains — give us places to explore and enjoy. I’d like to see that land remain as public as possible and as unspoiled as possible. That’s why I recently joined more than 1,000 retired military leaders who signed a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to protect the boundaries of national monuments like Gold Butte and Basin and Range.

“We ask that you ensure that all Americans, including veterans, continue to have opportunities to find solitude, hunt, recreate, and bond with their families on our protected public lands, including all of the national monuments currently under review,” the letter reads.

In September, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered a report to the president advocating that multiple monuments be shrunk or their management be changed to clear the way for commercial development, including oil and gas drilling, mining, and ranching. The president followed through by significantly reducing two national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, leaving important historical, cultural and scientific resources at risk.

Days later, The Washington Post released documents showing that a company owned by Canadian uranium giant Cameco lobbied extensively for the Bears Ears cuts to make it easier to access radioactive ore being milled nearby.

Dozens more monuments could follow, so we want the president to know veterans who fought for this country want to protect the land as well as the people, and we oppose downsizing or otherwise altering any more national monuments.

Public lands are vital to our health and well-being. They offer us a place to go to get away from the stresses of everyday life and become one with nature. When we started out in this world, man was one with the land. Some of us believe the natural world is an essential part of who we are, and we try to protect it so we can all reconnect to its beauty. For vets trying to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, the outdoors can be a godsend.

As we wrote the president, “Many of us who serve face profoundly personal challenges when we come home. Access to quiet and pristine landscapes such as Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is invaluable as we strive to leave the battlefield behind and train our eyes forward. These protected public lands, including our national monuments, offer a chance to heal from the stresses of service, reconnect with family and friends, and reintegrate into civilian life.”

The natural world has a healing quality to it. Returning service members need time to process the rigors they have been through, and one of the best places to do that is in nature. Public lands provide us the opportunity to explore and get lost in the beauty and wonder of nature, and help put our lives in perspective.

The founding document that makes the protection of these great spaces possible is the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was signed by President Teddy Roosevelt and has safeguarded some of America’s most hallowed ground. In the 112 years of its existence, the law has been used by 16 presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, to protect culturally and scientifically significant landscapes and historic sites from coast to coast. Some true natural wonders, including the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Zion, were first set aside by presidents under the Antiquities Act. Now we are fortunate to be able to add to those extraordinary landscapes places like Tule Springs Fossil Beds, Basin and Range, and Gold Butte, here in Nevada.

Conserving national monuments ensures that future generations of Americans, including military veterans, will forever have places to hunt and fish, to hike and camp, and to heal. Undoing the protection of these public lands for the benefit of developers is shortsighted.

We encourage the president to take the long view, to embrace the promise of our natural legacy of public lands, and leave the monuments as they are.

John Dalla retired as staff sergeant following a 19-year career in the Air Force. He lives near Las Vegas.