Spotlight On: Veterans Protecting 'The Land We Love'

Soldier with ChildVeterans of our armed forces sacrifice in untold ways to preserve the values that shape our national identity. Some return home intent on continuing their service in unexpected ways—as advocates for protecting our public lands. Vet Voice Foundation, founded in 2009, helps returning servicemen and women find new ways to participate in our democracy.

Mark Starr, a veteran of the first and second Gulf Wars, is program director for the Vet Voice Foundation. “One of the missions of the foundation,” he says, “is to engage veterans and get them involved in their communities where they can make a difference.”

An essential component of its mission is mobilizing the veterans' community to support protection of lands and conservation through the Land We Love campaign.

The organization's first foray into advocacy for public lands was through its backing of the energy components of the California Desert Protection Act of 2011, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The foundation became involved with environmental issues as an advocate for domestic renewable energy technology to enhance the nation's security. Veterans met their elected officials on the local, state, and federal levels and wrote opinion pieces and letters to the editor in area newspapers.

"Few can so effectively express our shared emotional ties to America's public lands as those who have fought to protect them."

- Jim Mathews, policy manager for Pew's Campaign for America's Wilderness

Southern California veterans have continued to heed the call of the wild, advocating for the efforts to designate wilderness and create a national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles.

Rick Reyes, a Marine veteran, works with the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign to designate wilderness and create a national recreation area near Los Angeles. In an opinion piece published by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Reyes wrote, “As I reflect now on my time in Afghanistan I frequently remember the things I would do to relieve the anxiety of those difficult days. One way of escape was to reflect on my homeland of Southern California and the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains.”

Jim Mathews, policy manager for Pew's Campaign for America's Wilderness, says, “Among our partners in the collaborative efforts to protect unique public lands, few are more appreciated or respected than those who have served their country in the armed forces. Veterans and active-duty military personnel provide a strong and poignant voice for the importance of safeguarding special wild places. Few can so effectively express our shared emotional ties to America's public lands as those who have fought to protect them.”

San Gabriel MountainsStarr reports that Vet Voice Foundation is active in California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and is expanding all the time. This year, it held the first Western Leaders Conference training workshop in Denver for vets who are interested in lending their voices to public lands protection.

Early indications are that the effort and the organizing are paying off. The foundation played a role in the campaign to designate California's Fort Ord a national monument. And it is working hard to solidify support for a national monument in the Organ Mountains in New Mexico.

Public lands protection has always been a bipartisan enterprise. The servicemen and women joining the effort remind us that it is not only pragmatic, but also patriotic.