Veterans want to protect the public lands that help them heal

California's San Gabriel Mountains, a conservation focus of veteran Jose Huante.

Photo: Rennett Stowe, flickr.

New polling shows that military veterans value the healing role of nature and strongly favor protecting public lands by designating them as national parks, monuments or wilderness.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation 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 by designating them as national parks, monuments or wilderness.

Given the value these veterans place on public lands, it is no surprise that 66 percent of those surveyed thought the government should take into account environmental impact when considering energy development leases on local recreation and wildlife habitat. Similarly, 80 percent supported the concept behind the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses fees from offshore energy development to preserve local and national parks and other places.

Though veterans are not always included in the conversation about protecting American public lands, their affinity for nature makes perfect sense; the outdoors act as refuge and emotional balm in troubling times. It is no surprise that our men and women in uniform feel they have a stake in protecting it.

Using nature to "walk off the war"

Wild places are therapeutic for just about anyone, but people returning from war are especially susceptible to some conditions that nature is well-suited to treat. Notably, research suggests that outdoor recreation may augment treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that affects 10 to 30 percent of veterans.

Understanding this, veterans have been using nature to cope for generations: Earl Shaffer, a veteran of World War II’s Pacific Theater, famously decided to “walk off the war” in the late 1940s and became the first person to "thru-hike" the entire Appalachian Trail in one shot. More recently, the Wounded Warrior Project's Project Odyssey was launched to help veterans overcome combat stress through outdoor retreats that encourage a connection with nature, and the Vet Voice Foundation, which sponsored the recent poll, also engages veterans in such efforts. Similar programs are increasingly used to help ease the burden on veterans’ children and families, too.

According to Michael Carroll, an associate director with the Wilderness Society, nature’s role in the lives of veterans is not merely supplemental; rather, it can be vitally important. “For many of our veterans, Americas public lands are part of why they served and part of their recovery,” he said. “Having a place where our returning vets can get outside, explore and enjoy with their friends and families is critical.” 

Jose Huante, 72, a resident of El Monte, CA, appreciates the value of wild places for veterans and non-veterans alike. He has been involved in the military for nearly 50 years, including wartime service as a truck driver in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Now he volunteers with groups like the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Amigos de los Rios, working to preserve southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains.

“Being part of these organizations has made me realize the need for veterans to seek and find a place of peace and beauty--and our San Gabriel Mountains are that,” Huante said. “But we must work toward protecting them, now and for the future. On our mountain trails, strangers talk to one another and smile freely. It’s a good feeling. I think our war heroes deserve that kind of tranquility and security.”

Jose Huante and his wife, Maria. Photo: Annette Kondo.

While Huante appreciates the unique restorative power of nature for veterans, he hopes others in the community at-large will follow their lead in conserving wild places. “The rest of our community must commit to be stewards of that environment for the good of all of our lives,” he said.

The specific form of that life-enriching good may vary, but nature’s simplest joys often require little deliberation. “In my case, a good place to be is on a trail, or up a hill or in the shade of a tree,” Huante said. “Just watching a squirrel go up a trail brightens up your mood.”

Returning the favor

While members of our national military family value the nature in their midst, and for good reason, that affection is neither static nor unreciprocated. The armed forces have an active and mutually beneficial relationship with our wild public lands.

In Arizona, this symbiosis is especially clear. Within the state’s Sonoran Desert, proposed National Conservation Areas (themselves encompassing protected Wilderness Areas) could benefit the Luke Air Force Base, Barry Goldwater Range and other military installations, as well as crucial habitat for wildlife, which includes bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, bobcats and mountain lions. The legislation would create two Special Management Areas to preserve wildlife corridors identified through Arizona’s Wildlife Linkages Assessment

Sometimes protected species are forced into areas that contain military facilities as a "last refuge." This can interfere with training and other military duties unless another area is provided to connect facilities with viable habitat. The newly-designated areas under the Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act would provide a linkage with the Sonoran Desert National Monument and Gila Bend Mountains, which contain similar habitat. This should keep species from being stranded in military installations, and give those installations more regulatory certainty moving forward. In the case of Luke Air Force Base, it will also mean clear airspace for fighter training. Recognizing these links, military groups have voiced their support for the Sonoran Desert plan.

In California, new plans would improve protections for about 1.6 million acres of public desert land, including adding and expanding designated wilderness areas. Among proposed additions: habitat bridges between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area and Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Some of the newly protected areas would be adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base and other military facilities in the region, similarly bridging the gap between important pieces of habitat and preventing “last refuge” scenarios.

At times, the needs of nature and military posterity intersect in unexpected ways. In 2012, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act for the second time to make California’s Fort Ord a national monument, recognizing both its history as a training facility from World War I on and the area’s expanses of coastal oak woodlands, marine chaparral, scenic grasslands and ephemeral pools.

The shared interests of the armed forces and the outdoors are not always this clear, but that is partly because we civilians have not paid close enough attention. As the recent polling attests, the connection is real and crucial.

Wilderness and other wild lands serve as a sanctuary from the pressures of day-to-day life; when these pressures involve spending extended time away from family, often while working under dangerous conditions, the need for such a resource is especially acute, as is the imperative to protect it. We must maintain those places for veterans now and in the future.

Help us protect American wilderness.