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Know the West

Wild spaces define who we are as Americans

A veteran explains why public lands are what he fought to protect.


Rob Vessels is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is program manager for the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Program and an Army veteran.

Last summer, five fellow veterans and I canoed Alaska’s Canning River to the Beaufort Sea through one of our nation’s most pristine regions, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For two weeks we lived on river time and took life one bend at a time. Our trip acquired a unique meaning: We felt whole again and experienced peace.

Now that peace is at risk as President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke advance an agenda that puts drilling and development before places, people and wildlife.

Eight years removed from the Army, I continue to cope with post-traumatic stress and what I can only call moral injury. During my first year out of the military, I hit rock bottom and thought about ending my life. In the years that followed, I struggled with the recurring trauma of losing some of my closest buddies to suicide. In my battalion alone, 12 have taken their own lives. To this day, I still struggle with these losses, which is why I almost always fall back on visiting wild places to recuperate.

Wilderness offers some of the most transformative and healing opportunities anyone can experience. In the outdoors, whether canoeing in the Arctic or simply backpacking with my dog, I can sort through things. I can also connect with other veterans and members of my community, sharing our stories and moving forward. The outdoors is a great equalizer: Who you are and where you come from ceases to matter. When you’re outdoors with someone, veteran or not, you bond with each other and the natural world around you.

The way I’ve come to see it, the Arctic Refuge and other public lands are a physical representation of the democracy I fought to protect. These unique spaces are the land we defend, and their protection ensures that all people can explore and enjoy the beauty of our shared lands.

I want to ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to witness scenes like this one. It is etched on my memory from two weeks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: When we got back to camp one evening, I turned around to find a baby caribou about five feet in front of me, calling like I was its mother. After a second, it realized I was something else, and it walked off. But all that evening I could see the calf at a distance, roaming the tundra alone as it searched for its herd. Hours later, about 53 adult caribou appeared on the horizon, grazing and I hoped that the baby got to finally link back up with its mother and herd.

A caribou in the fog near the Canning River Delta in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That night, I felt the vulnerability of that baby caribou, as I felt the vulnerability of all life in wild places.

On the final day of our journey, my team packed up our canoes and slogged for several miles through marshy terrain and over basketball-sized tussocks until we reached the edge of the North American continent. There, at the edge of our nation, I stood in awe at fields alive with activity and life. I’d never seen so many species of bird in one place before. While musk ox gamboled in the river across from us, an Arctic fox scampered around the tundra, looking back at us with interest. And in the distance, just to top everything off, we could see a grizzly bear grazing.

Yet I could also see Point Thomson, Alaska’s easternmost oil and natural gas site, and there before us was the issue currently facing this magnificent state. Zinke recently signed an order to expand oil and gas production in the Arctic, including ordering a review of the fragile coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for fossil fuel development.

Given his recent recommendation to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, his ongoing efforts to roll back protections at other parks and monuments across the country, and the fact that Trump’s budget relies on oil drilling revenues from the Arctic Refuge, our public lands — and especially the Arctic Refuge — are more vulnerable than ever.

These wild spaces define who we are as Americans. It is our job to continue to defend them from being scarred forever. I hope you’ll join me in calling on Secretary Zinke to stand up for our public lands, not just in word but in deed. We need to ensure that they remain places for healing and for hope.