June 19, 2012

A veteran's voice: Protect San Diego's public lands

As a veteran of both the Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, I understand firsthand the need to protect our country from all enemies and ensure our safety with strong security along our borders. I fought to make our nation more secure and I know that threats are, unfortunately, a daily reality of the 21st century.

Given this, it disappoints me all the more to see legislation put forward under the false guise of national security that will do little to make our country safer.

H.R. 1505, authored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, would allow the Department of Homeland Security unfettered access to our national parks and forests within 100 miles of the borders. This bill would also exempt the Department of Homeland Security from various laws on such federal lands, such as the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. 

In reality, this bill is nothing more than an ill-disguised attack on long-standing protections for our national parks and forests, including places that are in San Diego's own backyard.

Cleveland National Forest provides a getaway for families and friends to experience many great American traditions such as hiking, fishing and hunting in the great outdoors. Joshua Tree National Park is also close enough for a weekend visit to see the twisting trees that make this place famous, spot a bighorn sheep or take in the night sky of seemingly endless stars.

These, and many more places, are under threat from Rep. Bishop's ill-advised legislation. This bill would allow the Department of Homeland Security to build roads, construct gates and pollute water sources in some of the most pristine and special places in our country. That's not a plan I can support, especially given there's no credible argument that these changes will increase security along our border.

For proof of this, look no further than a recent study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which found that, "Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on the Border Patrol's overall measure of border security."

As a veteran, protecting our public lands is personally important to me. I've traveled the globe, including to some of the harshest conditions imaginable. When I was overseas, images of our country sustained me while I was away from home, from memories of driving along the majestic California coast with a blue sky overhead to thoughts of time spent in the great outdoors with family and friends. These memories gave me a sense of freedom - the same freedom that I was fighting to protect and defend.

Since then, the great outdoors has also served as a place of healing for me and many others of my fellow veterans. The men and women who have fought for our nation face many challenges when they come home to civilian life. They return with injuries and scars, both visible and invisible. Spending time out in the wilderness - a hike in the serene quiet of a forest or a day spent fishing by a river - are activities that provide calm after years spent at war.

As a veteran, a patriot of this nation and a Californian, I can't stand by while these lands are threatened. I'm proud to have worn this country's uniform and I want to continue serving. That's why I've chosen to follow in the path of the great Teddy Roosevelt - a man who was both a soldier and a conservationist - and stand up for our public lands. He understood the value of protecting our open spaces and setting aside forests and wilderness for future generations. Thanks to him, millions of acres of our country's most special places are still here for Americans to enjoy with activities like hiking, hunting, camping and fishing.

In fact, President Roosevelt left a lasting legacy right here in San Diego County. In 1908, he set aside the place we now know as Cleveland National Forest, ensuring that this area would remain protected for the 100 years that followed and now, for many decades more. No doubt he would have stern words for politicians that now threaten these lands. 

It is with his legacy in mind that I urge San Diego residents to help protect our great outdoors by telling their member of Congress to oppose H.R. 1505.

Starr, a Southern California resident, is program director of Vet Voice Foundation.



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