Veterans know it and so should you: Natural treasure must be saved

A polar bear on the frozen Beaufort Sea takes a break from gnawing on a chunk of whale meat. The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most dense concentration of polar-bear dens anywhere in the U.S. arctic.
A polar bear on the frozen Beaufort Sea takes a break from gnawing on a chunk of whale meat. The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most dense concentration of polar-bear dens anywhere in the U.S. arctic. Seattle Times file photo

I owe my life to America’s wildest public lands, which rescued me from the deepest, darkest pits of despair.

So now, as Congress threatens to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and strip protections to other natural treasures, I’m trying to return the favor by alerting Americans everywhere – not least in Washington state, which is blessed with many majestic public lands – about this potential assault on our heritage.

I served in the Navy in the early 1990s – in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, at Guantanamo Bay and in Somalia, where I saw combat during the disastrous Black Hawk Down days.

Back home, the GI Bill allowed me to go to the Pratt Institute School of Art in New York City, where I learned to be a graphic designer. That immediately led to a career mounting marketing campaigns for big international companies. It was exciting, high-flying work. But I know now that it masked the post-traumatic stress disorder that I, like so many veterans, brought home from the service.

When I moved to Portland in 2008 for work, the PTSD finally surfaced. Whiplashed by depression, I lost my job, became homeless and resorted to giving blood just to earn gas money. Coming close to suicide, I eventually ended up in Portland’s Veterans Administration hospital.

The VA helped me in a lot of ways, but the pivotal moment came when an attendant took me fly fishing. Once I learned to use a fly rod, I couldn’t get enough of it. The first time I hooked in on a fish, I smiled for the first time in months.

Fly fishing became the medicine my battered soul needed. The purity of the rivers – like the Klickitat, in Southeastern Washington, where I fish every winter – and the magnificence of the forests around them, eventually cleared the fog of depression and anxiety from my system. I have no doubt they saved my life.

Inspired and educated by the many experienced anglers I met on the rivers, I’ve dedicated myself to staying connected with the outdoors. In addition to running my own thriving design and apparel firm, I also launched Soul River, Inc., a non-profit that takes veterans – many struggling with PTSD, anxiety and traumatic brain injury – and at-risk, inner-city youth into wilderness areas throughout the Northwest.

Places like the Olympic Peninsula, where, in partnership with The Quinault Indian Nation, I have frequently brought youth and vets.

Those experiences allow them to learn about nature. Veterans mentor the youth, helping build their confidence and leadership skills. And these young people also give veterans the healing to push through their life barriers.

I’ve often seen light bulbs come on in veterans’ faces. I’ve seen smiles and healing. They and the youth they mentor become new defenders of public lands and wild spaces – teaching in their communities about the sanctity of these great American treasures and urging their representatives in government to protect them for all time.

Among many other priorities, this growing conservationist community is immensely worried about a pending U.S. Senate provision, sneaked into a budget bill a few weeks ago without debate (and over the principled objections of leaders like Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell), that will allow oil companies to drill in and despoil new sections of the Arctic Refuge.

Whatever monetary benefit drilling there brings will be relatively small and fleeting compared to the long-term damage. The measure’s supporters conveniently ignore that drilling – which requires massive new infrastructure and promises chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances – will have devastating, permanent impacts on the fragile ecosystem of Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain. It’s the largest habitat in the U.S. for native caribou, all three species of bear, the ancient musk ox and nearly 200 species of migrating birds (at least one from each of the 50 states).

I take an assault on these lands very personally, and so do many veterans and youth I’ve taken there to rediscover themselves.

So should all Americans. If our leaders in Congress can essentially redefine what it means to be a “protected” public land by allowing oil drilling in one of the wildest places on Earth, what’s to keep them from enabling all kinds of unsightly, ecologically damaging development in places that Washington residents know well and treasure?

What then is the future of the jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, glaciers and abundant waterfalls of the North Cascades, Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier and many other sacred natural sites in Washington?

That’s why Americans who recognize these special places as essential to our national identity and personal well-being owe it to ourselves, to thousands of species of wild animals and to future generations to stop the exploitation of the Arctic Refuge.

Chad Brown is founder and president of Soul River Inc., in Portland. Learn more online at www.soulriverinc.org.