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Invest in the Land and Water Conservation Fund | Commentary

The passage of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act provided funding for American military operations — and included a suite of parks and wilderness bills. While it is perhaps an unlikely pairing in Washington, there is in fact a strong relationship between American military history and our national public lands. In fact, these two integral parts of America’s identity — the service of military veterans and the natural wonders of our public lands — have been connected for more than a century, and it is appropriate that we invest in both.

With the creation of our first national parks, veterans and active duty members of the Army stepped up to be the first stewards of places such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, which were on the verge of being ruined by illegal poaching and development.

The first national park ranger was a Civil War soldier who served in the Union Army. Harry Yount was a Company Quartermaster Sergeant, and was later hired as the first gamekeeper for Yellowstone National Park. Yount began serving in Yellowstone in 1880. He was charged with protecting against illegal logging and poaching of the ecosystem’s iconic species — its bison, deer, elk and antelope. He is credited with not only protecting our first national park in its vulnerable early years, but also proposing and developing the framework for a dedicated ranger program for our parks that endures to this day.

Yellowstone National Park isn’t the only iconic American landscape that was protected by members of the American military. When Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890, the newly-protected jewel of the Sierras was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army’s Troop 1 of the 4th Cavalry. The Army protected Yosemite Valley and its iconic meadows against overgrazing, and dispatched patrols to explore the then-largely unknown landscape. The 4th Cavalry was joined by the Buffalo Soldiers to ensure the protection of one of America’s most beloved places.

The Buffalo Soldiers were pioneers in more ways than one. Not only were the Buffalo Soldiers the first peacetime all-black regiments in the U.S. Army, they were assigned to patrol and protect some of America’s first National Parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Their duties included confiscating firearms as well as curbing poaching of the park’s wildlife, suppressing wildfires, ending illegal grazing, and stopping thefts of timber and other natural treasures. They are also responsible for blazing the first hiking trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

Americans across our history have enlisted in the Armed Services to protect our American values. When I think of the men and women I have served with during my career in the U.S. Air Force, I am inspired by so many who have fulfilled that noble charge. I think of those who have come before us as well, whose service to this country is enormous, not only in times of war, but also in times of peace. Their efforts to secure and protect our precious landscapes are a part of their legacy that should not be forgotten.

One item sorely missing from this year’s recently-passed Defense spending bill is a reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been one of the most successful federal conservation endeavors — protecting our American history and heritage, as well as conserving national parks such as Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, along with other important national parks, including Civil War battlefields.

Many nonprofit programs, including Healing Waters and Rivers of Recovery, offer veterans access to public lands for health and healing, and to ease the transition back into civilian life. Programs such as these are invaluable to veterans, and public lands protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund often act as their foundation. It’s no wonder that in a recent bipartisan poll conducted for the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation, 80 percent of Western veterans expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund’s authorization expires this year, and its expiration and critical funding would be a tragic loss not only for veterans returning home, but for all Americans. Congress must not miss another chance to reauthorize and fully fund this critical program. America’s veterans have a long history protecting and enjoying America’s public lands, and Congress should honor this enduring legacy by working together to prioritize the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2015.

Maurice “Lee” McFann, Jr., is a retired lieutenant general with the U.S. Air Force who was commander of Allied Air Component Command Air Izmir, Turkey for NATO, responsible for ensuring the defense and protection of all NATO airspace in the Southern Region. He previously served as chief of safety for the US Air Force.

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