Montana Standard: Bill to help veterans access the outdoors signed into law

by Michael Cast

A U.S. Senate bill signed into law Saturday stands to bring Montana’s veterans and the outdoors closer together.

Introduced by Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, the bipartisan bill promotes outdoor veteran recovery programs and expands outdoor recreational opportunities for veterans on public lands. The bill passed as part of the Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020.

The other aims of the bigger package are to improve veteran access to services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as suicide prevention, care and services for women veterans, and education for families and caregivers of veterans with mental health disorders.

“In Montana, we have a rich history of outdoor recreation, and the outdoors is vital to our way of life. My bipartisan bill, the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, will help create more opportunities for Montana veterans to get outside and participate in recovery programs on public lands. I’m proud to see my bipartisan bill signed into law so that our brave men and women will be able to benefit from the great outdoors!” Daines wrote in an email.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester was a co-sponsor of the bill.

“The COMPACT Act is now law, which means a number of additional bipartisan ideas will assist our efforts to curb the high rate of veteran suicide in Montana and across the country,” Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in an email. “The Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, of which I am a proud cosponsor, is an important part of this effort, creating a task force on outdoor recreation to enhance the lives of our nation’s heroes and connect more veterans with innovative, life-saving treatments.”

In Butte, Mike Lawson, commandant of the local and state Marine Corps League, spends much of his time working with local veterans organizations and has been a driver for the Disabled American Americans for years. He also earned a Bronze Star in his service as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, and knows well the importance of the services that help veterans live full lives after serving their country.

He is also an avid outdoorsman and said any bill that helps Montana’s veterans access the state’s most beloved resource is a good deal.

Lawson offered as an example programs that allow disabled veterans to go on fishing and hunting trips.

“An act like this would dovetail right into that, and create more opportunities to help veterans, especially disabled veterans in a therapy type way, and in an outdoor setting,” he said. “It is a really good way for veterans on their journey of healing to be in recreational pursuits that are established by the government, or private, or a partnership between the two. I can see veterans organizations really jumping on the bandwagon to be part of that.”

Lawson personally knows the healing power he speaks of. Every year he joins other veterans at camp the first week of hunting season.

“And I live for that time to come,” he said. “Seeing the mountains and the streams and walking through the woods, the springs, the wildlife – there’s nothing better than that to lift one’s spirits.”

The Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a task force on outdoor recreation for veterans. The task force will report on and make recommendations regarding the use of public lands or other outdoor spaces for medical treatment and therapy for veterans.

In addition to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the task force will include representation from the offices of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, issued his support of the bill in an email.

“Veterans Affairs and our partners in government and local communities understand well the healing power for veterans who spend time outdoors, in our nation’s pristine, natural spaces. Much has been done to ensure veterans continue to enjoy and thrive in these beautiful places. We appreciate Senator Daines’ spirit of support for the ongoing efforts to help veterans,” Secretary Wilkie said.

Stakeholders from outdoor retail companies, outdoor industry trade groups, and other groups that promote outdoor recreation issued support for the bill in a press release from Daines’ office.