Conservation fund should be reauthorized

I’ve lived in or around Albuquerque most of my life. I grew up here, raised my children here, and as the state representative for House District 21, I’ve seen my wonderful quirky city from every angle. Still, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, from the top of the Sandia Mountains.

I was 9 years old and a member of Girl Scout Troop No. 570. Our troop and chaperones set out early one weekend to hike the La Luz Trail to the highest point of the Sandia Mountains. It was the first time hiking for most of us, and we were enchanted by the ponderosa pines, excited – and a little scared – by the rocky, winding path, and surprised by the old twisted juniper jutting out of the middle of the trail. Most of all, we were awestruck the first time we saw Albuquerque from the top of the mountain.

My memories of that weekend are similar to the memories of thousands of New Mexico residents lucky enough to have experienced public lands, many of which are protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The Sandia Foothills are just one of 84 LWCF grant projects in Bernalillo County alone, but the fund doesn’t just protect the grand open spaces outside the city.

The LWCF, since its inception, has funded playgrounds, pools and city parks across the nation. Phil Chacon Park, one of my favorites in my own district, was made possible with financial backing from the LWCF.

But here’s what I want my fellow New Mexicans to know: Without action from Congress, the LWCF will expire, threatening public lands and future projects across New Mexico and the United States.

I was a Girl Scout the first time I ascended the Sandia Crest. I didn’t know anything about the politics behind land conservation, but I knew that as a citizen of our nation and a witness to the beauty and grandeur of the American Southwest I had a responsibility to protect the lands around me.

Now, as an Air Force veteran, I view those same public lands as sources of peace, connection and healing. Specifically, a number of my fellow veterans and friends have used the protected lands in Taos to reconnect to their families and their nation through programs run by the Not Forgotten Outreach Military Family Respite Center. The center is a place for military families to come together and help each other reintegrate into society. It provides an outdoor rehabilitative retreat, using eco-therapy to promote peer connection, challenging outdoor experiences and healing with other veterans.

Our public lands serve as a place where families can go to camp, fish, swim, sail, hunt and enjoy the outdoors. As a veteran and the mother of a son who has served in Afghanistan, the calm and tranquil lakes and wilderness have served as a healing place. We are a state of very little means so being able to enjoy our public lands for free or very little cost helps many enjoy all of what our state has to offer.

If a Girl Scout could understand her responsibility to preserve the natural wonder of public lands, surely Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke can feel that same moral and professional obligation. That’s why I recently signed a letter, alongside more than 70 lawmakers, also veterans of military service from both sides of the aisle, to call on Zinke to support reauthorizing and funding the LWCF before it expires at the end of this month.

As a child I helped protect the land by picking up the trash along a favorite trail. As an elected official, I stand with my fellow veterans demanding Zinke tell Congress how vital the LWCF is to veterans, the people of New Mexico and citizens across the country. I stand with the representatives from both parties in supporting H.R. 502, a bill that would permanently reauthorize LWCF.

Our iconic lands, sacred in our collective memory, are threatened if LWCF is allowed to expire on Sept. 30. I call on you to add your voices to the chorus demanding that House Speaker Paul Ryan move to vote on H.R. 502, for our veterans, our citizens and our children. Our memories should not be the last made in the wonder and the serenity of public lands.

Rep. Debra Sariñana is an educator and military veteran with deep ties to House District 21. She grew up, raised her family, and now teaches in the district.

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