Veteran: Land and Water Conservation Fund facilitates freedom and must be saved

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of our nation’s most important tools for ensuring all Americans can enjoy the great outdoors, is under threat.

LWCF has provided critical funding for land and water conservation projects, recreational infrastructure and activities, and the continued historic preservation of our nation’s iconic landmarks from coast to coast. It has been used to protect places from National Parks to local ballfields in every state for the last half-century.

However, if Congress does not act, LWCF will expire on September 30th.

As a three-tour veteran of the Iraq War with the Marines, I feel compelled to raise my voice in support of LWCF for two reasons. The first is because I feel it’s my duty to do what I can to protect our country, and with all Americans’ outdoor access under threat, I must make a stand for what I believe is right.

The second is related to the unique relationship I have, and countless other veterans have, with the outdoors. Our nation’s wild places have for generations of veterans served as places for fostering a reconnection with home. I grew up knowing that our protected public lands are all of ours in America, but serving my country and protecting Americans’ freedom to enjoy them reinforced their importance to me.

LWCF is especially important here in Montana. It has been used to protect parts of Glacier National Park, the Lewis and Clark National Forest near my home, and countless other iconic places. Additionally, LWCF is such a great asset for the American people because it provides its conservation benefits to communities without taking a dime from taxpayers.

Instead, LWCF is funded by a portion of royalties that are generated by energy companies paying to drill for oil and gas in the Outer Continental Shelf. It’s a program that has been extraordinarily effective since its inception in 1964, supported by budgets from bipartisan presidents and used by members of Congress from across the political spectrum. It would be a travesty for members of Congress, like our own Greg Gianforte, to let it expire.

I was raised in Browning, Montana, and returned home after my deployments in Iraq. I am a proud member of the Blackfeet Nation and come from a long line of warriors in my family who served our country in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

For me, coming home was about returning to the Rocky Mountain Front, the most beautiful place on earth, in my opinion. I used the public lands in Montana to find solitude, spirituality, and gratitude for being able to return home. I also found myself connected to my ancestors in these spiritually important places to the Blackfeet, and felt my connection to my lineage of warriors.

These lands and other lands protected by LWCF are important to veterans because they help you regain your relationship as a civilian with your home and your history.

Just this past month, Congress passed a pro-conservation rejection of President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which had suggested a massive to LWCF. Thankfully, the bipartisan funding bill that Congress passed instead provided $425 million in fiscal year 2018 for LWCF – a $25 million increase from last year.

Incredibly, this year’s proposed federal budget from President Trump and his Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke calls for an enormous cut to LWCF again. Secretary Zinke is a veteran himself, a Montanan and a self-described outdoorsman. His effort to eliminate a program so critical to Montanans’ outdoors access is a disgrace.

In addition to the proposed cuts in the federal budget, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will expire altogether in the fall if Congress fails to re-authorize it. I urge our congressional delegation – Sens. Tester and Daines, and Rep. Gianforte – to work together to ensure that legislation reauthorizing this important program is passed before September.

In the House, a bill to reauthorize the program currently has 220 bipartisan co-sponsors.

But Mr. Gianforte is not one of them. If he cares about Montanans and their ability to recreate outdoors, and veterans who rely on the outdoors after their tenures in the armed services, he should sign on as a cosponsor immediately. Countless Americans, including veterans like myself, benefit from the freedom that we are born with to enjoy outdoor access.

LWCF facilitates that freedom, and must be saved.

Jonas Rides at the Door is a member of the Blackfeet, is a lifelong Montanan, and is a combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient.  Jonas served in the United States Marine Corps from 2003 until June 2007, including tours in Iraq.