June 16, 2015

Amendments to NDAA show disregard for national heritage and U.S. military

The U.S. Senate is now considering legislation to fund the Department of Defense for the coming year. As a veteran, this bill is usually something I keep an eye on. I want to know about investments in our national security and Pentagon operations, and follow the debates about the future of Guantanamo Bay and whether or not we will arm the Ukrainians against Russian separatists.

This year however, the congressional debates around the defense bill include some entirely unrelated issues – and threaten the parks and public lands I visit and enjoy with my family, and the heritage I hope to pass along to my son.

To start, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has squeezed a provision into the bill that would block the ability of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Greater sage-grouse, a bird that is the subject of an “unprecedented” collaborative effort among ranchers, sportsmen, numerous federal agencies and state and local governments across 11 Western States in efforts to save sagebrush habitat. The Department of Defense has clearly stated that conserving habitat for the sage-grouse has no impact on military readiness, so like everything in Washington these days, this isn’t about a bird – this is about politics.

A closer read of the provision reveals that Lee seeks to give state governors what some have dubbed “sweeping and unprecedented power” over our national forests and other U.S. public lands. Governors could use the Greater sage-grouse as reason to block agencies from planning for renewable energy development, or access for sportsmen. This thinly-veiled public land grab scheme echoes one sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which Vet Voice Foundation and 4,500 veterans opposed earlier this month. We fought for these public lands; everyone deserves them. Yet Lee, like Murkowski, appears to be sacrificing the long-term protection of wildlife and our public lands to appease industry supporters.

Another “rider” on the bill waives all laws for the operation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection – environmental, cultural, civil rights and otherwise – on public and tribal lands 100 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border in all of Arizona and part of the California desert. The language, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), could close or otherwise harm popular parks such as Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Fort Bowie National Historic Site, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and many other national treasures as well as the Tohono O’odham Nation, Ft. Yuma (Quechan nation) and other tribal reservations. 

Why the lawlessness? McCain has said it is for the benefit of Border Patrol, but the Border Patrol itself testified before Congress that it is already “everywhere – on private and public lands – at the border” and has significant coordination efforts already in place with local tribes and parks and public land managers. So, no needs there. In fact, there is a Forward Operating Base located within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and a Border Patrol Camp in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.  I doubt the Arizona business community would be happy to hear that their senator is scaring away tourism and undermining the state’s $10.6-billion outdoor recreation economy by sneaking a provision onto the nation’s critical annual military spending bill.

Sen. Flake (R-Ariz.) has also included language in the defense bill that would block the president’s ability to protect national monuments. Again, neither the Department of Defense nor any other national security agency requested this partisan attack on our public lands heritage. I personally have advocated for the protection of several new national monuments, including Browns Canyon in Colorado and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico, because of what these beautiful places mean to me and my family, and my transition to civilian life. Sixteen presidents (eight Republicans and eight Democrats) have used the Antiquities Act since it was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Republican President over 100 years ago.

And yet, in perhaps the most extraordinary demonstration of disregard for our national heritage and ignorance about our U.S. military, Flake’s anti-monuments amendment even includes a provision requiring that the Secretary of Defense weigh in on a potential monument – a decision that is made directly by his superior officer, the Commander-in-Chief. This is an incredible reversal of a military chain of command spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

These senators are not acting in the broad interest of the American people – or even our military. They cannot be permitted to single-handedly set precedents about the management and conservation of our wildlife or our parks, monuments and public lands, especially by sneaking provisions such as these into unrelated legislation. This is the legacy we are protecting for our children and grandchildren, and I for one won’t let a few politicians auction it off to the highest bidder. America’s public lands are for all Americans. 

Reppenhagen served as a U.S. Army cavalry scout sniper in the 1st Infantry Division in Kosovo and Iraq and currently works as the Rocky Mountain director of Vet Voice Foundation.

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