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Lately I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which spending time in nature has been vital to my mental health for most of my life. As a high school student in Southern California, I spent many weekends hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains with friends. Our favorite hike would take us to a reservoir above Malibu, and we would spend hours there gazing at the view and taking in the silence. Spending time in nature allowed us to reset and recharge before the school week ahead, and helped deepen our friendships.

Even after retiring from a 30-year career as a soldier, I’ve found that exploring the outdoors continues to be a source of healing and a place to connect with loved ones. I’ve heard other veterans express a similar view. It’s critical that we preserve our public lands and rivers so that more veterans, like myself, can benefit from nature’s therapeutic and restorative qualities.

Fortunately, California is on track to increase access to nature for veterans. California Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein recently introduced the PUBLIC Lands Act, which would permanently safeguard more than one million acres of public lands and over 500 miles of rivers throughout California. This includes special places in northwest California, on the central coast, and in the Los Angeles area. The senators also introduced the Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act that would add more than 191,000 acres of Los Angeles’ Rim of the Valley Corridor to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

I’m grateful to California’s newest senator for championing our public lands and rivers so soon after taking office. Alex Padilla is uniquely positioned to lead on this issue given his long-standing commitments to protecting the environment and standing up for veterans throughout his career.

Safeguarding public lands and rivers is critical for the health of veterans like me. When veterans can spend time in parks, on trails, and in other open spaces, we are able to more quickly repair the invisible wounds of war — the toll on our mental health — and ease the challenges of reintegrating back home.

After deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, transitioning home to the dense and noisy Los Angeles region has been more manageable because of places like the Santa Monica Mountains. When we need a break from the city, my wife and I only have to take a short drive to arrive at our favorite trails. Being able to spend time with my family in nature has been an essential part of my healing process.

Communities throughout California will benefit from these protections because the need to access nature has only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending time outdoors is one of the few, safe activities we can do. We must prioritize preserving public lands and rivers not just for veterans, but for our collective well-being.

In addition to benefiting health, our public lands and rivers embody the America that service members defended during our service. It’s our patriotic duty to preserve our national public lands and rivers — not just for us, but for future generations. We have a responsibility to continue stewarding wild places for all to enjoy.

I thank Sens. Padilla and Feinstein for working to permanently protect California’s public lands and rivers. I hope to see the Senate take action on these important bills this year. Veterans and communities throughout our state will benefit immensely from these safeguards. In a time when we all need the rewards of spending time in nature more than ever, we should work to preserve treasured public lands and rivers into the future.

Arnold V. Strong is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who lives in Long Beach, Calif.

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