Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Must Protect Our Right to Outdoor Access

Published in Times of San Diego, 5 June 2018.

As a Marine veteran, active San Diegan and an avid outdoor explorer, I am proud of America’s commitment to protect our national parks and public lands. As a nation, we treasure and work to preserve our wilderness for future generations.

This is why I raise my voice today on behalf of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, one of our nation’s most important tools for ensuring all Americans can enjoy the great outdoors.  The LWCF is under threat and at risk of disappearing entirely. The fund has provided critical funding for land and water conservation projects, recreational infrastructure and activities and the continued historic preservation of our nation’s iconic landmarks from coast to coast. It has been used to protect places from national parks to local ballfields in every state for the last half-century. However, if Congress does not act, the LWCF will expire this fall after helping protect America’s most beloved landscapes for over half a century.

The LWCF has protected some of California’s most iconic places. Our government has used it to protect wild parts of our state, including national parks like Joshua Tree and Death Valley here in Southern California, as well as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of my personal favorites. It additionally has been used to protect battlefields and other historic military sites across our county.

The fund is such a great asset for the American people because it provides its conservation benefits to communities without taking a dime from taxpayers. Instead, the LWCF is funded by a portion of royalties that are generated by energy companies paying to drill for oil and gas in the outer continental shelf. It’s a program that has been effective since its inception in 1964, supported by budgets from bipartisan Presidents and used by members of congress from across the political spectrum. For our members of congress to let it expire when it has done so much for our communities (at no taxpayer expense) would be a travesty.

I recently spent a weekend camping in Death Valley National Park and was struck by how many visitors had traveled from around the world to marvel at America’s lands. I commissioned as a Marine to serve our country, and believe the public’s access to public lands — a right unique to the United States — is worth defending. Americans have a unique relationship with our lands, and I’m proud to live in a country that values access to these places for all people.

Earlier this year, Congress rejected President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which had suggested a massive cut to the LWCF. Thankfully, the bipartisan funding bill that Congress passed instead provided a $25 million increase in fiscal year 2018 for the fund. And yet, incredibly, this year’s proposed federal budget from President Trump and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke calls for an enormous cut to the fund again.

Zinke is a veteran himself, and a self-described outdoorsman. I am disappointed that he is willing to sacrifice our public lands for political and personal gain. And it’s not only his proposed budget cuts to the LWCF: he also presided over the largest cut to protected lands in American history, when he and President Trump decimated the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah last year.

Meanwhile, when he’s not attacking our conservation heritage, he’s insisted on flying a special flag when he is at the Department of Interior Headquarters, an ego-driven riff on the military custom of flying a specific flag when a commanding officer (at a much higher rank than Secretary Zinke ever achieved) is on deck of a ship. Instead of trying to cheaply co-opt honored military traditions for the sake of his ego, he should focus on being the steward of America’s land and water and work to protect these special places for all Americans, something that should come naturally to him as a veteran.

I urge Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund before it is too late. Countless Americans, including veterans like myself, benefit from the freedom that we are born with to enjoy access to the outdoors. The LWCF facilitates that freedom, and must be saved.