October 04, 2015

Vet group lends voice to Thompson Divide issues

A group that encourages Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to lend their voice to important issues that affect them back home is turning its attention to the embattled Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale.

Garett Reppenhagen, a Colorado native and U.S. Army veteran, is the Rocky Mountain regional coordinator for the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation.

The organization empowers veterans to speak out on issues such as jobs, health care and housing.

Conservation is also a topic near and dear to veterans’ hearts, he said, citing recent polls that show a majority of veterans want to protect natural resources and public lands.

“It comes back to why we wanted to serve our country and make that sacrifice in the first place,” Reppenhagen said.

“Conservation of these places is important so future generations have something to explore, and where they can be inspired,” he said.

A sniper in Iraq, Reppenhagen said he found healing in Colorado’s public lands when he returned home, which helped him relearn how to be a civilian.

Last weekend, he led an overnight camping trip for three of his fellow military veterans, Matt Stys, Brian Huston and Grant Wideman, into the Lake Ridge area of the Thompson Divide where several undeveloped natural gas leases are at issue.

The outing was part therapy, incorporating elements similar to the Aspen-based Huts for Vets outdoor experience program, said Reppenhagen, who has participated in the hut trips and found them helpful.

“The farther we got away from the vehicle, the farther away we were from the war,” he said of the latest trip. “The discussions that most therapy groups try to get you to have come naturally around the campfire.”

The distinction is that Vet Voices encourages veterans to take an advocacy role and to get involved in conservation policy for the different areas they explore.

“We are hoping to extend that effort into the Thompson Divide by ensuring the current drilling leases are removed and they don’t return,” Reppenhagen said.

“We all enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “For veterans, it has amazing healing properties and offers an opportunity for families and friends to reconnect after deployment. That is the reason why we wish to protect these areas.”

Vet Voices has already been involved with the recent designation of Chimney Rock and Browns Canyon national monuments, and the Hermosa Wilderness in southwest Colorado.

Elsewhere, it helped to establish two decommissioned military bases, Fort Ord in California and Fort Monroe in Virginia, as national monuments.

Participants in the outings Reppenhagen organizes are encouraged to write opinion pieces, visit decision makers and speak publicly about their experiences.

“We hope this hike is one of many to get veterans exposed to the incredible Thompson Divide area and help get them passionate to conserve it,” he said.

During the campout, they talked about the risk to 15 different watersheds should large-scale drilling occur, Reppenhagen said.

“We were excited to hear that there is work to try to transfer some of those leases,” he said of a proposal by two lease holders in the region to exchange leases in the Thompson Divide for new leases closer to established oil and gas activity.

About two dozen of the leases that have been extended beyond the normal 10-year lease period are also under review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to determine if they should continue.

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