In summary

After a one-year deployment to Iraq, spending time outdoors, in nature was healing for me and many other vets.

By Kate Hoit, Special to CalMatters

Kate Hoit of Sacramento is the California state director with Vet Voice Foundation,  kate@vetvoicefoundation.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Before the coronavirus pandemic upended life as we know it, spending time in nature was healing for my family and me. 

This wasn’t always the case. I didn’t consider myself an “outdoorsy” person growing up. My family didn’t go hiking or camping. My first real experiences in the outdoors began when I was 17, when I joined the U.S. Army Reserve and trained outside during the freezing winter months. 

After deploying to Iraq for a year, I came home. Everyone tells you how difficult deployment will be, but rarely do we talk about the challenges many service members face when coming home. 

I started taking solo hikes and discovered that spending time in nature helped me reconnect with my loved ones, my community and myself. I hear similar stories from other veterans. For many of us, spending time outdoors eases the transition back home. 

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I believe that there are lessons to be learned from my experience. The current COVID-19 crisis illuminates the importance of spending time outside as a way to cope with the stress and trauma of the pandemic. It also highlights that there is more to be done to protect and ensure access to our public lands and rivers.  

Californians poured into nature during the first few weeks of the state’s shelter-in-place restrictions. Many parks and public lands closed statewide as a result of overcrowding. That’s the right thing to do to maintain our health and safety.

Our elected officials, however, should ensure our parks and public lands are waiting for us when it’s safe to explore them again. We can also improve access so that more of us can safely spend time outdoors.

This will be critical in the coming months. Research shows that spending time in nature improves mental and emotional health. Recently, I talked to a veteran who shared that coping with the pandemic has triggered traumatic memories of the war in Afghanistan. Californians, especially veterans, will need to heal from the trauma of the pandemic, and many will continue to seek time outdoors as a result. 

Congress can ensure that we have opportunities to “walk off the war” by investing in our public lands and rivers. The PUBLIC Lands Act, championed by Sen. Kamala Harris of California, would increase protections and access for more than 1 million acres of public lands and more than 500 miles of rivers statewide. A similar bill has already passed the House. Harris also introduced the Outdoors for All Act, which would support construction and improvement of parks across the country – particularly in underserved communities that lack access to outdoor recreation.

Congress should also vote to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund has protected parks, trails and playfields in every state since 1965. According to a report from the Trust for Public Land, every dollar invested in the Land and Water Conservation Fund returns at least $4 in economic benefits. Prior to the pandemic Congress was on the verge of fully funding the program, with 58 bipartisan sponsors in the Senate. 

I am grateful for leaders like Harris who champion public lands and rivers protections in California. Join me in thanking her for leading efforts to pass the PUBLIC Lands Act, the Outdoors for All Act, and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Consider writing her a note of thanks.

Veterans understand the power of spending time outdoors. By passing protections for public lands and rivers, our leaders will ensure that Californians can turn to the outdoors as a source of healing and comfort in the months and years ahead. 

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Kate Hoit of Sacramento is the California state director with Vet Voice Foundation,  kate@vetvoicefoundation.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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