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Guest column

Veterans want Fort Ord protected

By VITALI MOSTOVOJ | | Published: February 24, 2012

Recently Colorado College announced the results of its second annual “Conservation in the West” poll, showing that western voters across the political spectrum nearly unanimously agree that public lands such as national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are “an essential part” of the economies of these states. More than 9 in 10 western households with active or retired military view these public lands as critical to their quality of life.

The 2012 bipartisan poll of 2,400 voters in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming found that 4 in 5 western voters view having a strong economy and protecting land and water as compatible. Pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies, the nation’s largest Republican polling firm, said that “the depth and breadth of the connection between westerners and the land is truly remarkable — when people are telling us that public lands are essential to their economy, and that they support continued investments in conservation, even in these difficult economic times. Westerners are telling us that we’ve got to find a way to protect clean air, clean water and parks in their states.”

In a political atmosphere rife with discord and dissent, this unified position on preserving western lands is remarkable. As a U.S. veteran living in California, I can assert that protecting our land and water protects my opportunities to hike and camp but, more importantly, it protects the very heart of the America the Beautiful that I fought for.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently toured one of these places: former military base Fort Ord, which sits on California’s Monterey Bay. Salazar stood on Wildcat Ridge overlooking the Pacific and called the breathtaking panorama “a crown jewel that will be around when all of us are gone.”

From 1917 to 1994, Fort Ord housed and trained 1.5 million U.S. soldiers. For much of that time, spanning World War I to the Persian Gulf War, the fort was the primary basic training facility for the Army. Veterans who trained at Fort Ord are still alive.

Since 1994, this distinct setting of more than 7,000 acres of maritime chaparral and grasslands — featuring 86 miles of roads and trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding — has been managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and much of it is open to the public. Accordingly, Fort Ord attracts 100,000 visitors every year, many of whom frequent and spend money in nearby municipalities. Tourism already plays a significant role in Monterey County, employing more than 24,000 people needed to serve the 8 million annual visitors who spend roughly $2 billion in the county.

Designating Fort Ord the nation’s newest national monument would almost surely boost tourism numbers and enhance the associated economic impacts, while protecting this striking landscape.

That message comes through loud and clear in the Colorado College poll results, too. Nearly 8 in 10 western households with active or retired military believe we can protect our land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time.

Neighboring communities also support protecting the area’s public lands. The president has the authority under the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments at places of natural, historical or scientific significance, and we invite President Barack Obama to exercise his authority and take decisive action to protect Fort Ord.

Members of the Vet Voice Foundation and a group of California veterans recently sent a letter to Salazar saying, “A National Monument designation [at Fort Ord] will serve as a reminder of the triumphs and sacrifices that have shaped the United States and honor the legacy of the millions of soldiers who trained on these lands.”

Salazar got it right when he said, “This is one of those places where you are as close as you can come to having heaven on earth.” Now is the time to ensure that the heavenly public lands that envelop historic Fort Ord are protected so that we and future generations may come to enjoy its scenery, to recreate, and to remember how Fort Ord once protected all of us.

Vitali Mostovoj is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and is a member of Vet Voice Foundation, which seeks to help veterans continue to serve their country by speaking out on vital national issues.