Las Vegas Sun

March 21, 2019

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Healing power of a campfire is reason enough to support conservation fund

While serving as a U.S. Army sniper in Iraq, Garett Reppenhagen vowed he’d never go camping again after leaving the armed services. Having performed more than 100 missions, he’d simply had enough of roughing it in remote areas.

But after returning home to Colorado, where he grew up enjoying the outdoors, the wilderness beckoned him and he quickly broke his promise.

“It took me two days, and I was back out,” he said, chuckling.

Returning to the woods turned out to be the best thing he could have done, he said. Being away from cellphones, TV and other distractions gave him time and space to self-reflect and recover emotionally from his combat tour. It was his form of “walking off the war,” an increasingly popular form of healing among veterans, involving long hikes and extended camping excursions.

Now, however, he’s back in a fight — only this time, it’s a political battle to save federal funding for the outdoors.

Reppenhagen is among a growing chorus of voices urging Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was established in 1965 to safeguard natural areas.

The fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil leases, has provided billions of dollars for a wide array of uses, from maintaining national parks and historic battlefields to building urban baseball fields and swimming pools. LWCF projects can be found in every state.

In Nevada, the fund has provided $102 million for the Lake Mead National Wildlife Area, Red Rock National Conservation Area, Valley of Fire State Park, Springs Preserve, Sunset Park and a number of other areas.

But amid partisan fighting over the use of public lands, fueled largely by the Trump administration’s efforts to open those areas to development, the fund could become a casualty. Unless it’s reauthorized by the end of this month, hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding for recreation and the outdoors will vanish.

This can’t be allowed to happen, first because it would be harmful to the health and well-being of Americans, but also because it would be foolish from a dollars-and-cents standpoint.

The fund not only helps maintain natural areas but protects them from encroachment, and often has been used to expand them. That means Americans have more room for hiking, bicycling, swimming and a huge array of other healthy activities, as well as recreational activities like hunting, fishing and off-roading.

The LWCF also supports Nevada’s outdoor tourism industry, which generates $12.6 billion in annual consumer spending and supports nearly 90,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. With the state increasingly emphasizing outdoor attractions in its travel and tourism promotions, this is no time for funding to dry up.

And keep in mind, taxpayer dollars aren’t in play here, as the money comes from energy companies. The fund is capped at $900 million per year, but lawmakers have discretion over how much of it to spend on the outdoors and recreation, with the remainder going to the general treasury.

The Trump administration sought to slash the funding last year, but Congress wisely ignored the recommendation and steered $425 million into the program. Trump again is seeking a massive reduction — 90 percent — but Congress should hold firm. Not only should spending be maintained at or above the current level, but Congress should approve a permanent reauthorization of the fund.

People like Reppenhagen are among the top-of-list reasons to save the fund.

Now a member of the Vet Voice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages veterans to advocate for public policy issues, Reppenhagen said the outdoors saved his life as he struggled over his role in the war. He said he knew other veterans who had healed naturally by bonding with others and talking through their issues during excursions to natural areas.

“I have seen more healing happen around one campfire than I have in 10 sessions in a VA hospital under fluorescent lights,” he said.

Nevada’s lawmakers should keep images like that in mind when deciding on the LWCF.