Protect Public lands in the San Juans (and elsewhere) for future generations

Seattle Times Op-Ed - Rick Hegdahl

AS a retired U.S. Navy veteran who served two tours in Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was thrilled to hear of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent visit to Fort Ord in California, and his conversation with veterans and the community about potential designation of the former military base as a Soldiers National Monument. This would be a good way to not only boost the local economy and protect our military history, but to honor those who have served throughout our history.

As a veteran, I know that the importance of protecting these lands goes far beyond their significance as a military base. When I returned from serving in Kuwait in 2003, the first thing I did was take my 9-year-old daughter on an 11-week, 11,000-mile drive around the nation, visiting 32 states and numerous national historic sites and parks. It proved to be one of the best investments I could ever imagine: teaching my child through experience what incredible beauty and history our nation provides if you only take the time to explore it.

Protecting our land and water — in California or here at home in Washington — protects the very heart of the America the Beautiful I fought to protect, and which I want to see preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Salazar recently visited another of America's crown jewels here in Washington, the San Juan Islands, to speak with the community about protecting 1,000 acres currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Veterans and their families from all over the Puget Sound area enjoy these lands with other members of the public for hiking, camping, kayaking and experiencing the natural beauty where ocean meets island.

But without further protection, there is no guarantee that these lands, with their historic lighthouses, seaside trails and rocks and reefs with seals, sea lions, nesting bald eagles and falcons and seabirds, will be preserved for future generations to visit.

During his recent visit, the secretary said: "The San Juan Islands are home to unique cultural and natural resources and a great example of the types of land we want to conserve for the benefit of all Americans.

One of the goals of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative is to connect people to the beauty and richness of our public lands and ensure we protect places like the San Juan Islands for generations to come."

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Congressman Rick Larsen are sponsoring legislation that would protect these cherished spots as a National Conservation Area (NCA). The bill would ensure that the 1,000 acres of federally owned lands remain in their natural state and publicly accessible.

Like at Fort Ord, should our leaders in Congress get stalled by a political morass, the president has the ability to step up and protect the San Juan Islands as a national monument. Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush have done just that: to set aside irreplaceable landscapes and cultural and historic sites for public access and enjoyment. Protecting these lands is backed strongly by the local San Juan community.

The 2012 Colorado College "Conservation in the West" poll found that Western voters across the political spectrum — from tea-party supporters to those who identify with the Occupy Wall Street movement to voters in between — nearly unanimously view parks and public lands as essential to their quality of life. That includes households like my own with active or retired military family members.

Now it is time to ensure that our public lands are protected. Secretary Salazar is bringing appropriate attention to Fort Ord and the San Juan Islands; it is up to all of us to champion their protection in Congress and at the White House, so that we and future generations can continue to experience America the Beautiful.