To Serve and Sacrifice for the Common Good

Ed Norton & Heath Nero
|November 11, 2020

Today is Veterans Day, the day on which we honor all veterans for their love of country and their willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.

Our nation’s veterans come from every walk of life and from all across this great country. We hail from small towns, rural areas, urban areas, and the suburbs. Political demographers would assign us labels spanning the political spectrum.

All of this is to say that we veterans are not a monolithic group, but rather a cross section of America in the truest sense of the word, as it should be. After all, the military of a democracy ought to represent the diversity of the country it is charged with defending.

If there’s a unifying attribute for the diverse group of people who make up America’s veterans, however, it is a deep love for this country. For the two of us and for many of our fellow veterans, this love of country is rooted in a deep sense of place, and that “place” can be found within the diverse and vast landscapes that make up our nation’s public lands. These places are the places to which we wanted to return home.

While both of us served our country, we did so in two very different wars during two very different eras. Yet, both of us have dedicated our lives to protecting our nation’s irreplaceable public estate since leaving the military.

Two veterans, in two different branches, separated by almost 40 years–one serving in Vietnam in the 1960s and the other in Iraq during the early 2000s–came to the same conclusion: When this fight is over, I want to fight to protect our nation’s public lands.

Some of our nation’s most revered conservation advocates came to a similar conclusion during their own time in uniform, from the “Trust Buster” President Theodore Roosevelt to the legendary Sierra Club Director David Brower to the “Wise man of the West”, author Wallace Stegner, Stewart and Mo Udall, Gaylord Nelson, President Jimmy Carter, Frank Church, Cecil Andrus, Martin Litton....just to name a very few.

Veterans are naturally drawn to this fight because the more than 600 million acres that make up our country’s public lands are a uniquely American concept–public lands are the very essence of who we are as a people.

That our nation collectively decided to hold these lands in the public trust rather than hand them over to be despoiled and discarded by the robber barons and other private interests is a credit not only to the men and women who advocated for the retention of public lands, but to the wisdom of American democracy itself.

President Theodore Roosevelt said that our efforts to protect public lands represents America's "essential democracy."

There was no guarantee that things would turn out this way. But for the tireless efforts of those veterans who came before us who fought to see that these lands remained in the public domain, today’s veterans would not be able to find the kind of solace that can only be found during a trek through places like Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante or a paddle through Missouri’s Upper Missouri River Breaks or a horseback ride in Oregon and California’s Cascade-Siskiyou.

And as veterans we also celebrate and honor the love of country and service for the common good of tens of thousands of men and women in our federal and state governments. Honoring their service is especially important today.

One of the great casualties of the last four years has been the explicit denigration of career employees and civil servants in our federal government who work on a daily basis to protect America’s public lands.

Each generation of veterans owes it to the next to pick up the mantle of conservation leadership. As our nation sets its sights on protecting 30 percent of our nation’s lands by 2030, we encourage all Americans, but especially our fellow veterans, to join us and the incredible, dedicated people who make up the community-based movement of our Friends Grassroots Network in this fight.

A good start is joining us in encouraging the Biden Administration to restore the protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah on day one.

Together, we can ensure that these lands remain forever unspoiled, ready to be explored by future generations of veterans.


Ed Norton is the Chairman of the Conservation Lands Foundation and a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
Heath Nero is a Conservation Lands Foundation Board Member, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Army veteran of the Iraq War.
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