Lands of the Free

With Election Day just past and Veterans Day around the corner, I've been thinking about how deep the roots of our American democracy extend. It's more than just a political ideal that generations have fought to defend. It's also embedded in our national character, and America's public lands are one result.

Next year will mark 100 years since the creation of the National Park System. The very idea of setting aside our best, most beautiful, wild places for all the people -- not a chosen few -- to enjoy was uniquely American. It's a tradition that we uphold to this day, not just through our national parks but also through wildlife refuges, national monuments, and neighborhood green spaces.

These public lands benefit all of us in many ways, but time spent outdoors can be a particular boon to veterans. A short film that follows a group of veterans as they explore the public lands that surround the Grand Canyon shows the power of the outdoors to create space for healing. But that can't happen if public lands aren't protected.

Mike Ivison, one of the veterans featured in the film, puts it like this: "We need to protect and conserve our home, not just by fighting those without, but by defending that which is within." Nowhere is the importance of that idea more obvious than in the Grand Canyon's watershed. The fate of the public lands around the Grand Canyon hangs in the balance as time ticks away on a temporary ban on new uranium mines in the area. Right now, mining companies are challenging that ban in court.

Just how much we stand to lose if we don't act to safeguard this area hit home to me when my family camped there last summer. As my kids slept, exhausted from our trek, I sat under a sky ablaze with stars and felt very small indeed. I thought about the incredible cultural history of the area and its importance to the tribal nations that are leading the charge for its protection as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.

The Navajo Nation (which has banned all uranium mining on its lands), along with Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi, Zuni, Paiute, and Yavapai leaders, have joined with Representative Raul Grijalva in calling on President Obama to protect the sacred sites and waters of the Grand Canyon watershed. Former Colorado senator Mark Udall (who recently wrote on the topic in the New York Times), dozens of state public officials, community leaders, national and local outdoor business owners, and thousands of ordinary citizens are echoing that call.

If we want to protect the public lands around the Grand Canyon, now must be the time. A Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument would be a fitting tribute to the area's culturally rich history and to our living democracy.