Veterans: Congress must fund vital conservation program

Veterans gather in Virginia's Prince William Forest Park to enjoy the outdoors and discuss the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Credit: Brandon Helm.

Veterans convened Nov. 19 to declare their support for public lands—and ask that Congress re-authorize a program responsible for protecting some of our most iconic natural landmarks.

Retired generals, veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor gathered at Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park to enjoy the outdoors and discuss the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a conservation program that uses fees from offshore energy development to preserve local and national parks and other placesand whose funding needs have not been met by lawmakers in recent years.

“Veterans have a long history of serving as stewards of our national parks, dating back to the Civil War. Helping to protect these places provides a renewed sense of mission, and a legacy for my son and future generations,” said Garett Reppenhagen, a U.S. Army infantry veteran who served as a cavalry scout sniper in Kosovo and Iraq and now works for the non-profit Vet Voice Foundation. “I urge this and the new Congress to act to conserve our American public lands.”

Veterans received fly casting lessons from local guides and Trout Unlimited staff. Credit: Brandon Helm.

For veterans, the issue has special significance. Nature has often been used as a safe haven by those returning from war, and research suggests that outdoor recreation may even help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. A Nov. 2013 survey found that 75 percent of Western veterans who served in the U.S. military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars favor the federal government protecting public lands. Similarly, 80 percent supported the concept behind the LWCF (which helped protect this very park).

“These veterans’ stories speak to the power and importance of our public lands in in a way that politicians or activists cannot capture,” said Brandon Helm, LWCF campaign coordinator at The Wilderness Society, who attended the event. “Wild, natural places played a vital role in the recovery process of many of our guests. It is only fitting that they stand up for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has been so instrumental in expanding outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans.”

Advocating for a 50-year-old promise

In 1964, Congress passed the LWCF and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law, setting the framework to preserve over 5 million acres (and counting) of irreplaceable land from coast to coast.  Over the past 50 years, many of our communities have been shaped by this law in ways we probably don’t even recognize, whether by the maintenance of a running trail or the preservation of a historic battlefield. It has bolstered our natural heritage in innumerable ways, all without receiving taxpayer money. In fact, an analysis of the return-on-investment from LWCF funds found that every $1 invested yielded $4 in economic value.

Unfortunately, preventing the LWCF’s funds from being siphoned away has become a perennial struggle; more than $18 billion has been diverted from the LWCF trust fund by Congress over the course of the program’s life, and in the last year, nearly $600 million was routed away from it, leaving many projects unfinished. LWCF funding levels have approached the amount authorized in the original legislation only twice, and it is set to expire in 2015 without immediate action from Congress. The message from these veterans was loud and clear: it’s time to reverse the recent trend and fully support our public lands.

See also:

The Land and Water Conservation Fund