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08/27/2012

In Support Of Protecting Our Public Lands and Reconnecting Americans to the Great Outdoors

Mario RivasAs a veteran, I'm alarmed that Americans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world outdoors. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas with little access to green spaces, and Americans average eight hours a day connected to electronic media. Making certain we connect veterans and their families with the great outdoors is vital. Returning veterans and their families seek the outdoors for their well-being. Protecting our natural resources ensures a much needed respite for many veterans and their families. Organizations like the Sierra Club are leading the cause for conservation and policy that help veterans adjust and come to terms with all aspects of their service.

To celebrate Great Outdoors Month (June 2012), the Sierra Club joined other conservation groups for “Great Outdoors America Week" to let our elected leaders know how important it is to protect our public lands and reconnect Americans to the outdoors. We called on Congress to pass a clean public lands package that includes lands protections. We asked our leaders to support the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, which will provide more opportunities for children to get outside. We also urged Congress to fully fund the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). A clean public lands package could provide more outreach for children, protect public lands, fight obesity, and provide more access for veterans and their families to visit and enjoy national parks.

On a recent visit to Capitol Hill, I had an opportunity to speak to my Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) about LWCF, public lands conservation, and the tremendous sacrifice that veterans pay. The Congresswoman has been a long champion for support of environmental concerns and veterans issues, and is no stranger to these issues (she once fought a proposed power plant in her district that would pollute the air and make her constituents sick).What was new to her, though, was the concept that high numbers of returning veterans and their families seek the great outdoors for mental therapy.

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left many veterans, like myself, who have left for war and are now back in their community. Not all of us come back though. Those veterans that died securing and protecting the democracy and freedom we all cherish are gone, but their families remain. For all this sacrifice, returning veterans and their families need to see and feel the beauty of our natural resources. Many studies have shown a strong connection between being outdoors and levels of happiness and health in addition to maintaining healthy levels of weight and physical fitness. This is especially important for returning vets and their families.

For over ten years now, our military, less than 1% of the American population, has been fighting our wars. Ensuring that more elected officials hear from veterans, a very small, but important demographic, is essential. Equally important is looking out for military personnel after they leave service and ensuring that they are physically and mentally healthy.

As a native Californian, and as a proud American veteran, I'm a strong advocate of policies that continue to support the great outdoors and conservation. Passing a clean public lands package would help ensure awareness of the beauty of the great outdoors. Supporting the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act and other policies to connect Americans with the land we have fought so hard to defend are essential. We need to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and to ensure our public lands are protected, free from pollution, and fully accessible for future generations.

--Mario Rivas 

Mario Rivas served two deployments of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the United States Marine Corps. He now serves in the California Army National Guard as a Captain and company commander. He is an alumnus of the Veterans Leadership Academy at the Truman National Security Project. He recently lobbied members of congress and the senate on behalf of military families, the Sierra Club, and in support of a clean public lands package and LWCF. 


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