An Iraq War veteran fights for public lands

by Garett Reppenhagen

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.

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