June 8 is the 111th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt signing the Antiquities Act into law. Thanks to the foresight of Roosevelt and Congress, 16 Presidents have been able to designate 157 monuments that preserve sites and landscapes that honor America's timeless history and natural heritage. Just as it has special meaning for our diverse nation, the Antiquities Act has special meaning for veterans, too.
As military veterans, we fought and sacrificed for the lands of the free. There is no better representation of that than our public lands. They remain a place where any American can access outdoor recreation regardless of the color of their skin, religious affiliation, political leaning, sexual preference, gender identity or income bracket. You can hike for miles in any direction and stand on free land granted to each citizen as a right earned through the dedication of Americans who shed their blood on battlefields throughout the history of this nation.
On April 26, 2017, veterans and other public lands users were shocked to see President Trump issue an executive order to review national monuments designated in the last three presidencies for consideration of rescission or reduction. Millions of acres of public land could lose protected status and become vulnerable to being sold or leased for development and natural resource extraction. The executive order puts over 24 national monuments at risk, many of which Vet Voice Foundation worked directly with local stakeholders to persevere.
Because veterans have fought to protect the lands we love while in the military, we joined the overwhelming majority of Americans that stood up and demanded areas like Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks (NM), Bears Ears (UT), and Browns Canyon (CO) gain permeant protection as national monuments. Once it became obvious that Congress could not find a way to pass legislation to protect these locations, the President stepped in and used his Antiquates Act authority to designate these treasures as national monuments.
Vet Voice Foundation first got involved in national monument campaigns to conserve two ex-military bases, Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California. There was tremendous support from former service members, not only because of the unique military history but because there was an urgency to protect cultural and natural places so future generations could see nature untrammeled, learn about our shared history, and find healthy places to recreate surrounded by open space.
The outdoors offer opportunities through physical challenges that encourage healing of corporal wounds and the solace needed to heal moral injuries. Public lands are places veterans can take family and friend to reconnect after stressful mission abroad without modern distractions. These are qualities that benefit not just veterans alone but our whole society. That is why thousands of veterans joined local movements to urge decision makers to act in the interest of public good.
National monuments preserve natural landscapes and historical landmarks that teach the complex achievements of Americans from the home of the first African American West Point Military Academy graduate in Ohio to the locations where heroes fought for civil rights heroes such as Stonewall National Monument in New York City or Cesar Chavez National Monument in California.
In the last 10 years, Vet Voice Foundation rallied around campaigns to designate new national monuments. We took veterans to see the amazing native petroglyphs in Gold Butte, Nevada, and hiked the rock formations at Chimney, Rock Colorado. Veterans signed letters of support for the protection of Browns Canyon and Bears Ears. Sixty-eight retied flag officers signed on to a letter debunking claims that Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks would jeopardize our border security.
There was tremendous advocacy from the veteran community to protect places with military history like Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, where bomber pilots trained during WWII, or Mojave Trails, which includes the remains of General Patton’s Iron Mountain Camp, where our first armor battalion prepared to fight enemy tanks in Africa.
All of these sacred public places are now in the sights of an administration that puts the interests of private profits over the public good. The backward logic that these lands were “grabbed” by the government from the American tax payer couldn’t be further from the truth. This is the type of language that motivates misguided citizens to take over wildlife refuges through force of arms, emboldened to “free” these areas that already belong to the public.
The truth is that the protections these monuments provide ensure that everyone can access their public lands for recreation and traditional uses such as grazing, hunting, and gathering firewood, and that our crown jewels would never be exploited by the few at the expense of future generations.
I stand with the veteran community in opposing President Trump’s executive order on national monuments. I urge U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to stand with fellow veterans and honor Bears Ears, Organ Mountains-Desert Peak and all other monuments designated through the Antiquities Act.