Here's Why Veterans Should Care About America's Public Lands

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A visitor views the Grand Canyon from Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz., Jan. 27, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo/Caleb Worpel)
A visitor views the Grand Canyon from Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz., Jan. 27, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo/Caleb Worpel)

Will Goodwin is the director of government relations for VoteVets -- the nation's first and largest progressive veterans' organization with more than 600,000 members. Previously, he advised U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on military and veterans policy and served as a U.S. Army field artillery officer.

Veterans from across the nation are in Washington this week to meet with congressional leaders to discuss a matter of national health and welfare. These members of the Vet Voice Foundation are in town to make the case for the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and why it should be fully funded for the annual $900 million originally intended by Congress.

LWCF was brilliantly conceived during the Eisenhower administration to balanced use of our natural resources with investments in conservation and stewardship. It has since become the principal source of federal dollars for expanding America's parks, wildlife refuges and other heritage lands, and without question has done more to protect open space and develop outdoor recreation opportunities than any other federal program in American history.

Since its launch in 1964, LWCF has invested $18.4 billion to preserve Civil War battlefields and other historic sites, protect iconic places from Grand Canyon National Park to the Appalachian Trail, and has supported 42,000 state and local projects, at least one in every U.S. county. This protection of open space doubles as a powerful economic driver, stimulating tourism and generating a U.S. outdoor recreation economy of $887 billion in consumer spending and creating 7.6 million jobs.

Funding for LWCF comes only from royalties paid by offshore oil and gas producers in federal waters. Taxpayers do not pay one dime. Yet, despite its popularity, bipartisan support, and proven effectiveness, the LWCF account has been fully appropriated only once in its history, with Congress diverting more than $17 billion for other federal spending.

Recently, in a rare conservation bipartisan victory, President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act into law, which among other things, permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But incredibly, one day later, the Trump administration proposed a budget that would nearly zero out LWCF funding.

Members in both the House and Senate have proposed bipartisan legislation to provide full and dedicated funding for LWCF, but the surest pathway to accomplish this appears to be including it in the fiscal 2020 appropriations bill, likely to be finalized by the end of September.

Veterans and their families consider the issue of outdoor access vital to recovery from the rigors of military life. In nature, veterans experience a sanctuary, free of stresses and uncertainties, a place with no worries where they can relax, enjoy themselves and their surroundings. It is why the 550,000 members of Vet Voice Foundation are tirelessly active in their support for public lands management, and in particular, LWCF.

In addition, it is of great meaning for veterans to preserve historic battlefields that are part of our nation's history. With minimal LWCF funding, some of America's most significant historic battlefields and monuments could lose the necessary backing that protects them for future generations, including the 9/11 Memorial.

Our nation's public lands are part of a shared history treasured by all Americans. Year after year, polling shows that a majority of voters believe investing in conservation is important to their communities and quality of life, regardless of their political affiliation or the state of the economy. A clear majority understand that public lands -- national, state and local parks, monuments and wildlife areas -- are essential to their state's economy.

In a time of increasing partisanship, full funding of LWCF is a chance for Congress to listen to the wide spectrum of voters, all of whom are united in support of conservation values. While veterans and their families may be leading the effort this week, we need the help of more Americans to speak out about how protection of outdoor places and improving access to recreation, so often enabled by LWCF funding, improves their lives and the economic well-being of their communities.

With permanent LWCF reauthorization accomplished, this is a most opportune time to raise our voices about fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the best conservation ally this nation has ever known, and have Congress take it to the finish line.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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