An Iraq War veteran fights for public lands

Finding much-needed solace in Colorado’s Browns Canyon and hoping it becomes a national monument.


When I got back home after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I found I needed time to reintegrate into civilian life again, time to settle into someone who didn’t flinch at loud noises or tense up for action. The places that helped me most were our public lands, and most especially, a wild place called Browns Canyon. That is why I’m grateful to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who introduced a bill last year to make 22,000-acre Browns Canyon a national monument that also includes a wilderness area.

Like so many other Americans, returning veterans count on being able to enjoy going to remote places to fish, camp, hike and hunt, sometimes alone, but often with friends and family. I believe that these publicly owned places are crucial to helping vets heal from the prolonged stress of combat. The peaceful quiet and the scenic majesty of the backcountry aid a soldier’s recovery and assimilation back into stateside life.

When I was growing up in Manitou Springs, Colo., I recall learning about the Earth’s history at the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument. And I gained an appreciation of our nation’s outdoors by exploring the nearby Pike National Forest. I would not have survived my own transition from being a sniper in Iraq to life in American society if I’d been unable to camp and fish in those places. The serenity of nature helped me find peace of mind, and spending time outdoors allowed me to reconnect with people without distractions.

Just as the men and women in the armed services defend our way of life every day, I believe that we all need to be vigilant in defending our national treasures. That is why, when legislation was proposed in Congress last year to sell off our public lands, I joined other veterans and traveled to Washington, D.C. We wanted to remind the White House and members of Congress of their shared responsibility as stewards of our public lands.

Our national parks, monuments and public lands are fundamental to the America that we take for granted. From the towering sequoias in California to the Chimney Rock National Monument near Durango, Colo., we can boast of hundreds of places that reflect our unique natural and cultural heritage.

Browns Canyon and the Arkansas River that flows through it deserve enhanced protection as a national monument. This beautiful granite river canyon near Salida, Colo., offers one-of-a-kind fishing, rafting and hiking, with views of the Collegiate Range. As Sen. Udall put it, when you enter Browns Canyon, you feel as though “you’re 100 years into the past.” The place has also become a magnet for tourists who help stoke economic development in this part of the state.

All sorts of people, including veterans, outdoor outfitters and outdoor enthusiasts, have united in supporting the designation of this area as a national monument. Now we hope that the political dysfunction evident in Congress won’t derail the passage of this wildly popular proposal -- S. 1794, the Browns Canyon National Monument and Wilderness Act of 2013.

We’re counting on Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike to recognize the exceptional value of creating a Browns Canyon National Monument. It would be a plus not only for veterans, but also for our cultural heritage in this part of the state. Ranching, for example, would continue in the monument, as Udall’s bill allows for the continuation of grazing allotments now and into the future. Commercial-scale mining, however, would be banned both in the riverbed and on its banks.

Of course, there is another path for the area to become a monument. Championed and signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt, the Antiquities Act allows a U.S. president to designate valuable natural areas as national monuments to preserve park and conservation lands. Devils Tower and the Grand Canyon were both originally established this way.

Regardless of which path is used to protect this Colorado landmark, I hope you agree that Browns Canyon deserves to become a new national monument and that you consider joining the growing community that is working hard to see it happen.

Garett Reppenhagen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a third-generation Army veteran who served as a sniper in Iraq and as a member of the peacekeeping force in Kosovo. He is now the Rocky Mountain Coordinator for Vets Voice Foundation, speaking out on national issues that affect veterans.

The Taylors
The Taylors says:
Jan 29, 2014 04:31 PM
I can understand a veteran's appreciation for public lands, especially the wilder areas. I was drafted and did a combat tour in the field artillery in Vietnam and like most Vietnam vets, upon return, faced an America sometimes grateful, usually ungrateful, sometimes belligerent to that foreign service. I found a good alternative relationship, wild landscapes. later in passing years I got involved with the protection of a certain riparian canyon in central Arizona. I suppose it was a way of offering appreciation to the landscape for the cure it can offer. like this young veteran I can attest that wild country is a good medicine to readjust to society and fellow humans! good to see younger individuals keeping the relay going and especially a fellow veteran. saludos!
Doug Smith
Doug Smith says:
Jan 29, 2014 05:37 PM
Hopefully the president will get to work declaring National Monuments and Wilderness areas during his remaining time in office and leave an environmental legacy.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith says:
Jan 29, 2014 05:37 PM
Hopefully the president will get to work declaring National Monuments and Wilderness areas during his remaining time in office and leave an environmental legacy.
chuck dunn
chuck dunn says:
Jan 29, 2014 06:21 PM
oh yeah, create more of everything ,so more government employees can be guaranteed salaries,health care and generous pensions.
national monuments limit our access to our land.there s plenty of open land to find a quiet and peaceful place. let the people be the stewards of our public lands.
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann says:
Jan 29, 2014 07:02 PM
Doug Smith the environmental legacy left by Roosevelt is what Obama is trying to sell and if i have anything to do with it, it won't be sold or commercialized for drilling or fracking
Linda Jalbert
Linda Jalbert says:
Jan 29, 2014 08:23 PM
Thanks Garret for you support and efforts in protecting wild lands. Protection does not necessarily mean limiting acces as one commenter points out. It does not necessarily mean that Fed employees are guaranteed anything. This is a good time for all to express those concerns that may be incorporated into the legislation. Wilderness protection is for the future. Those of us who have enjoyed the benefits of wilderness created 50 years ago and grateful that our grandchildren have those opportunities.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Jan 29, 2014 08:48 PM
I had to check to make sure this was the same place I was thinking of. Sure is..
You know those huge signs for rafting on 285 south of Buena Vista? That's what's being talked about. Udall says hundreds of thousands of tourists every year already, calling it a monument or wilderness or seventh wonder of the world should help push it over the million mark maybe. Railroad is the western boundary, railroads are pretty wildernessy, campgrounds, coffee shops, pizza, whatever. I think in summer one could just hop raft to raft all the way down to Salida without getting one's feet wet. All existing uses grandfathered in, basically the same thing as it is now but with a different name. I expect next to hear of an "Elitches Water World Wilderness at Vail". Hope everyone makes lots of money.