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Rio Grande del Norte: A Gift for the Veterans and Military Families of New Mexico

This is a big win for the people of New Mexico and our nation. And it isn't the only win this week for Veterans.
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This week, President Obama once again demonstrated his commitment to protecting our public lands with the designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico. This designation marks the fifth time during his tenure that President Obama has used the Antiquities Act to safeguard our nation's public lands. The designation of Rio Grande del Norte was widely supported among sportsmen, community leaders and local residents who have been working for years to see this public land, perched in Taos and Rio Arriba counties, preserved for future generations.

In August of 2012, Taos County Commissioner Larry Sanchez, a member of the Vet Voice Foundation's New Mexico Steering Committee, helped draft an eloquent letter to President Obama -- co-signed by 19 other Taos County veterans -- on why it is important to protect these lands. Commissioner Sanchez, a Vietnam-era Veteran, understood fully the importance that these lands play not only to the future of New Mexico but also for the Veteran community. In a personal conversation I had with him he emphatically told me, "With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, our Veterans need these lands to find a place to recuperate and find peace. I want President Obama to know the intrinsic value these lands hold to America's heroes."

Commissioner Sanchez also did more than write a letter to the president. He personally went to Washington, D.C. in September on behalf of the Vet Voice Foundation to advocate for a Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. His voice and leadership were crucial on this issue with both the administration and New Mexico's lawmakers.

The Vet Voice Foundation is an organization that works throughout the western United States to involve Veterans in the effort to raise awareness of the need to protect public lands. I have served as the organization's Program Director since 2009.

In safeguarding the public lands of Rio Grande del Norte, many vital interests will be served. First, Rio Grande del Norte is a mecca for outdoor recreation. Hikers, hunters, rafters, campers, kayakers, rock climbers and anglers not only from New Mexico but also all across our great nation frequent the area. These activities benefit the local economy, and a national monument designation will increase these benefits. A recent study by BBC Research & Consulting found that the tourism increase resulting from a national monument designation could boost the local economy by $15 million and create 279 new jobs.

New Mexico's natural environment is also a big winner here. Rio Grande del Norte is home to a remarkable blend of wildlife habitat such as pronghorn antelope, elk, cougar, bighorn sheep and bobcat. The area also boasts some of the best elk, deer and antelope hunting in all of North America while the Rio Grande and Red River offer an amazing trout fishing experience.

Rio Grande del Norte also serves as a critical watershed for New Mexico and the surrounding region. Much of the state and surrounding areas receive a substantial amount of their water supply from the Rio Grande. These waters also provide irrigation for millions of acres of farmland. Through the designation of a national monument, these wildlife habitats and water supplies will be protected in perpetuity.

This is a big win for the people of New Mexico and our nation. And it isn't the only win this week for Veterans.

In Washington State, President Obama protected the public lands of the majestic San Juan Islands as a national monument, a place Iraqi Freedom Veteran Rick Hegdahl spoke up to protect. The president also protected our military history by designating the historic home of Colonel Charles Young in Ohio a national monument. Born into slavery and only the third African American to graduate from West Point, Colonel Young overcame all odds to become the highest-ranking African-American officer in the U.S. Army.

Protecting our public lands and cultural heritage at places such as these can play a role in the recovery of our men and women as they return home from war. No one can doubt the spiritual connection that exists between nature and those seeking solace. As Veterans, we fought for these lands overseas and it is important that we now defend them at home. Through the efforts of Commissioner Sanchez, Rick Hegdahl and others, these lands will always be here for America's Veterans.