By State Rep. Debra Sariñana, math teacher and military veteran
New Mexicans were disheartened and angered about government shutdown. According to a WalletHub study, New Mexico was one of the hardest hit, especially our outdoor recreation economy, which generates $9.9 billion in consumer spending annually and employs 99,000. Our public lands were directly threatened. We still don’t know the damage done to our ecosystems and cultural heritage.
Some of my most enduring childhood memories are of seeing Albuquerque from the top of the Sandia Mountains. That view always fills me with hope, and the belief, that we the people can do anything.
When I became a mother the Sandia experiences inspired me to take my children to La Luz Trail, Both Park Lake and Blue Hole—with its crystal-clear cavern it’s one of the most unique geological phenomena in the Southwest.
My father loved to tell my son, Dominic, about the slight cliff ledge over Blue Hole and how diving off it into the depths was transformational. The more my father told him stories, the more Blue Hole beckoned him. When the day dawned for Dominic to take flight off the cliff into the water you could feel the tension and excitement. It was a seminal experience for us all.
As a mother and veteran, both my children have honored me with their service to our country. My daughter, Samantha, is in the Air Force, as I was. Dominic is a Marine.
I’m very proud Dominic served in Afghanistan, but I'm never happier than when he returns home. After his last tour he insisted on climbing the Sandia Mountains. He said they looked like Afghanistan. After he went, the tension that had accompanied him home seemed to dissipate. He was rejuvenated. Now, he’d really come home.
Sometimes, I don’t know how to start a conversation to discuss his wartime service. I don’t know if he wants to talk about it. Many of us face that same dilemma with veterans when they return stateside. How do you connect with an experience that is so different from our day-to-day lives? How can we understand places so different to what we call home? Our landscape reconnected him, cleared his mind and truly brought him home to me.
I wonder if he ever compares New Mexico to Afghanistan and sees that since we’ve come a long way as a nation, so can they. Or if going to our mountains is something more basic, something everyone who has been there can understand. The peace, the serenity, the truth of nature can help heal any soul.
Our public lands serve as a place where families can camp, fish, swim, sail, hunt, and enjoy the outdoors. Being able to enjoy our public lands for free or very little cost brings us closer to true equality. Seeing them closed because of the shutdown told us the Trump administration doesn’t care about us.
Many of our public lands have been protected and looked after by grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The Sandia Foothills are just one of 84 LWCF grant projects in Bernalillo County. The fund makes it possible for city projects, bringing nature to everyone. Over the past 40 years, the LWCF program has provided more than $3.9 billion in grants, funding projects in just about every county in the country.
These are the reasons why I’ve joined the Elected Officials to Protect America’s Land, the only group of serving elected officials who are veterans dedicated to preserving and protecting America’s public lands for all. By doing so, we are continuing the Constitutional vows we take as veterans and elected officials to preserve and protect our nation.
Last summer, 80 of us, signed and sent a letter to the Interior Secretary in support of reauthorizing LWCF. A week after we held congressional meetings with senators on Capitol Hill the LWCF funding bill, that had been languishing in committee, was approved. Recently the Senate passed sweeping conservation legislation which included LWCF funding. Now it’s the law.
But I’m still worried because of the President’s nominee for Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, is an ex- oil lobbyist with deep ties to corporate polluters.
In a year and a half, Bernhardt has made his mark on public lands by reversing key Obama-era climate change policies, and more recently, prioritizing oil and gas drilling at the expense of furloughed government employees. He has helped narrow habitat protections for endangered species, and is pushing California to divert more of its water from conservation.
He has a solid track record of doing favors for his industry friends at our expense. Bernhardt's ties to the fossil fuel industry are so numerous, he is rumored to have to carry a card with him to keep track of his potential conflicts of interest. Bernhardt’s has too many conflicts of interest and his recent deeds clearly show his loyalties are not with the American public. He should not be appointed.
As veterans who are lawmakers, one of the freedoms we fight for is to protect access to public lands for all. The Department of the Interior Secretary should uphold the agency’s mission to protect our public lands for future generations.
Join me in to keep Bernhard from stealing our birth right to access America’s public lands.