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Brown’s Canyon in Colorado should be next National Monument designation

When I returned home from Iraq, where I served as a U.S. Army sniper, I grabbed my sleeping bag, a water purifier, and a fishing pole and hiked into the Pike National Forest near where I live in Colorado. I stayed until I was tired of eating fish. I credit my time in our national public lands as a critical part of my transition back to civilian life after the stress of war. It not only helped me to heal emotionally, but also reconnected me with the land I swore an oath to protect.  I’m proud to join the ranks of U.S. veterans, like my Vietnam veteran father and grandfathers who served in World War II, who understand the tradition of military service and the importance of our public lands as a part of our identity as Americans. This relationship between veterans and America’s landscapes is deeper than most people realize.

With the creation of the first National Parks, veterans and active duty members of the Army were the first stewards of places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, before park rangers even existed. Rangers protecting our public lands today have their roots in this service that veterans provided our country around the turn of the 20th century. 

{mosads}The story of American veterans protecting our natural heritage must begin with Harry Yount. Yount was an American Civil War Soldier who served in the Union Army as a Company Quartermaster Sergeant, who became America’s first National Park Ranger. In 1880, Yount was hired as the first gamekeeper for Yellowstone National Park, which had been signed into law as the country’s first National Park in 1872. 

In the first eight years of the Park’s existence, illegal logging and poaching of the ecosystem’s bison, deer, elk, and antelope occurred without abandon. Yount was hired to protect the iconic species in Yellowstone – can you imagine Yellowstone National Park today without the bison? — and in his 14-month stint in the park, he protected wildlife and advocated for a full-time ranger force. Yount’s legacy lives on — this Civil War veteran now has an award named after him, which the National Park Service awards annually to an exemplary National Park Ranger. 

Yosemite’s protection has its roots in the military, too. As a U.S. Army Cavalry scout, its one I’m particularly proud of. When Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890, the iconic valley and granite peaks were placed under the watchful protection of Troop 1 of the 4th Cavalry.  The U.S. Army reigned in overgrazing and dispatched patrols to scout and assess the landscape, vastly improving existing maps. Troop 1 was soon joined by the Buffalo Soldiers, the first peacetime all-Black regiments in the US Army, many of whom previously served during the Civil and American Indian Wars. They were assigned to patrol and protect Yosemite, as well as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Another note about the cavalry and our public lands: did you know the iconic park ranger hats you see today evolved from the cavalry hats the Buffalo Soldiers wore on duty in Yosemite?   

This relationship between the U.S. military and our national public lands is one that must have the opportunity to flourish in the future. Protecting Browns Canyon here in Colorado is a great way for our country’s leaders to show that they are serious about ensuring there are protected places for Veterans, and all Americans. Just as millions of Veterans like me have committed to defending our country for future generations, Congress and the President have a duty to protect our most cherished places for all the Americans that they are expected to represent. 

Browns Canyon is located near several U.S. military bases, including Ft. Carson and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Its protection as a National Monument would ensure that service members and veterans could have access to the outdoors, can heal from the trauma of war, and reconnect with family. It’s the type of place where I can imagine taking a rafting trip down the Arkansas River with members of my regiment after a long deployment. It’s also a place I hope to someday take a daytrip with my wife and newborn son Ocean.  Perhaps it is where I could begin to pass on to him my love of fishing in a place known for its premier trout waters.        

With the fewest number of veterans now in Congress since World War II, I fear too few of our elected officials understand the relationship Veterans have with national public lands, for they have not acted to protect Browns Canyon despite overwhelming local and national support. Fortunately, Barack Obama has the authority to protect it for the benefit of all Americans. The President should designate Browns Canyon as a National Monument to ensure that present and future generations of veterans and their families can remain connected to, and be stewards of, our public lands and waters.

Reppenhagen is Rocky Mountain West coordinator for the Vet Voice Foundation.

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