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A Veteran's Viewpoint on the National Parks

Cinder cones along Kelbaker Road in the Mojave National Preserve
Cinder cones along Kelbaker Road in the Mojave National Preserve | Photo: Don Barrett, some rights reserved

Commentary: As a soldier in the U.S. Army, I served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, often in difficult and dangerous conditions. I joined the Armed Services because I wanted to give back to my country and do something meaningful to protect the nation that I loved, and the many wonderful people who live within its borders. For me, American values like freedom, democracy and independence remain important virtues that are worth defending.

They are the same virtues embodied in our nation’s unparalleled public lands, especially those of the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year. The birth of the National Park Service grew out of the Yosemite Act of 1864, which protected the spectacular Yosemite Valley, and the preservation of Yellowstone National Park — the land of fire and ice.

Early efforts conserving wild places of stunning beauty and abundant wildlife like Yosemite and Yellowstone were based in evolving recognition that wilderness was becoming increasingly scarce. They led to the creation of the National Park Service with the passage of the Organic Act on August 25, 1916. And the link between our national parks and our Armed Services has always been strong: it was the U.S. Army that took charge of Yellowstone in the 1880s and the Buffalo Soldiers, an African American regiment, who became Yosemite’s first park rangers.

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When I returned from overseas, I was immediately drawn to the solace of open spaces on our public lands and their outstanding recreational opportunities. Hiking, camping and exploring were ways to escape the everyday hustle and bustle of modern society and a way to think deeply and reflect.

I also found the values of freedom, democracy and independence irrevocably intertwined with our public lands which offer veterans and other citizens a chance to explore spectacular landscapes; allow access for all Americans regardless of race, class or belief; and the increasingly rare opportunity to find solitude, as well as physical and mental challenges.

Today, I’m a student at Cal State Long Beach who works as an assistant instructor and tutor. I regularly go to hike, camp and explore the magnificent California desert national parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley and Mojave National Preserve on weekends, and I played an active role in advocating for the recent creation of the three new desert monuments. These desert parks and monuments are unique in terms of the recreational opportunities they offer the public, their biodiversity and their beneficial impact on the local and regional economy. Best of all, they protect land in southern California, which has more than 25 million residents!

As a veteran who served his country proudly, I think the National Parks Centennial gives all Americans a lot to celebrate this year. National Park Service lands stretch from Olympic National Park to Acadia National Park in Maine and from Joshua Tree National Park to North Cascades National Park in Washington.The hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, “America’s Best Idea,” is an opportunity to celebrate the birth of an agency that embodies American values and recognizes the important role that freedom, democracy and independence play on our spectacular system of public lands.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink. Banner: Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve. Photo: Lin Mei, some rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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