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Vets Petition Trump, Interior To Protect Public Lands

Veterans, including West Virginia's Matt Kearns, are calling on another vet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to protect public lands. (Chad Cordell)
Veterans, including West Virginia's Matt Kearns, are calling on another vet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to protect public lands. (Chad Cordell)
January 25, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Twelve hundred veterans - more than 1,000 of them former officers - are calling on the White House to better protect national monuments and other public lands.

The vets have signed a letter to President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, urging them to "maintain the boundaries and protections" of public lands currently under review.

Matt Kearns graduated from the Coast Guard academy, then spent five years stopping cocaine shipments off the coast of South America and protecting against terrorism in the Pacific. He described the quiet and pristine landscapes of these wildernesses as the best of America.

"We took an oath to defend the Constitution and protect the country,” Kearns said. “When I think of America, I think of the Grand Canyon and the redwoods, and the mountains and rivers of West Virginia."

Zinke has argued that national monuments named by previous administrations were too big, and slashing their size would allow for more growth and investment by mineral and energy companies.

But Kearns pointed to the long tradition of U.S. veterans seeking solace and healing in the wilderness. He now works on public lands issues for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, but after he left the service, he spent two years traveling, living in his pick-up.

"I felt like I got to know the America that I had dedicated nine years of my life to,” he said; “traveling, seeing, camping, hiking, not have to answer to anybody.”

Kearns said a woman he knows paddled the Mississippi after returning from service overseas. And he said one of the first people to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail was a World War II vet. Zinke is himself a vet.

According to a New York Times report, the shrunken boundaries of the Bears Ears Monument exactly allows for claims sought by uranium mining companies.

Kearns said if true, that would run exactly opposite to the ethic of veterans who put "public service above their very lives."

"We shouldn't be using public service for private gain,” Kearns said. “This really is about protecting and stewarding public resources."

Zinke has insisted that mining played no role in shrinking Bears Ears. Those and other boundary changes are likely to be in court for years.

Dan Heyman/Cynthia Howard, Public News Service - WV