Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced a bipartisan bill today, HR 2435, to help military veterans heal and seek treatment through outdoor recreation, by allowing veterans better access to federal lands.

“Veterans hospitals are renowned for intricate and comprehensive specialty surgeries and treatments, but we can and should do more,” said Smith, former Veterans Committee Chairman and author of the Veterans Health Programs Improvement Act (P.L. 108-422), which authorized new research and education centers for treating veterans with complex multi-trauma combat injuries; today there are five major polytrauma rehabilitation centers.

“Studies have shown—and veterans organizations strongly concur—that outdoor recreational activities can provide powerful therapeutic and healing benefits as well as camaraderie for veterans struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress,” said Smith. “We should be thinking outside-the-box to discover as many ways as possible to help veterans, and opening up federal lands and removing barriers to access for remedial outdoor recreation is a no-brainer. My legislation would help increase access to this treatment option.”

“Access to the outdoors can have a tangible and meaningful impact on our veterans’ mental health and physical wellbeing,” said Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), lead Democratic cosponsor of the legislation. “In the Pacific Northwest, we see firsthand the restorative power that spending time in nature can have as a part of comprehensive therapy. By bringing together the VA, federal agencies, and stakeholders from veterans and outdoors organizations, the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act will help increase opportunities for veterans and their families to experience the benefits of the public lands and outdoors spaces that their service to our country has protected. I am proud to join in the reintroduction of this bipartisan legislation with Congressman Chris Smith to help our nation’s veterans and their families experience the outdoors.”

“Studies have proven that outdoor recreation can improve mental health and provide benefits for those recovering from trauma, especially for our veteran populations who rely on the healing power of the outdoors to help them reconnect with friends and family and ease the return to civilian life,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), sponsor of the Senate companion to Smith’s legislation, with Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) as the lead cosponsor. “I’m proud to support legislation to help our nation’s heroes access public lands so they may enjoy the recreational and therapeutic opportunities they provide.”  

Veteran assistance groups have said that access to nature, combined with group activities, have positive therapeutic effects on veterans especially those struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress.

Smith’s Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish, within 180 days of the bill’s enactment into law, an inter-agency task force to increase the availability of federal lands for use for medical therapy for veterans.

Among other actions, the task force would:

·         Be co-chaired by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior and include the Secretaries of HHS, Agriculture, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers;

·         Discover opportunities for collaboration between the VA and public land agencies to increase the opportunities for veterans to enjoy outdoor recreation;

·         Identify obstacles that exist to veteran outdoor recreation.

Smith’s legislation also would:

·         Require a preliminary report within 180 days on the findings of the Task Force;

·         Require a report no later than one year after enactment of the legislation on the Task Force’s proposals to better facilitate the use of public lands for the treatment of veterans.

Smith’s legislation is supported by various veteran advocacy and outdoor recreation groups, including Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Minority Veterans of America, Blue Star Families, Vet Voice Foundation, Sierra Club, Adventure Not War, REI Co-op, PeopleForBikes, Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Research, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

“DAV has supported numerous programs over the years to provide recreational therapies for injured and ill veterans, most notably the DAV and VA co-sponsored National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and National Disabled Veterans TEE Tournament. We know the therapeutic benefit these experiences have, and are pleased to support the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act as it could create even more opportunities for veterans to experience the life-changing power of alternative therapies,” said DAV National Commander Dennis R. Nixon.

“For 100 years The American Legion has been concerned with making veterans heal not just from the wounds of war, but any disabilities or conditions incurred as a result of their military service,” National Commander Brett P. Reistad said. “We also support the use of a wide variety of therapies. Due to the physical requirements to serve in the military, many veterans enjoy outdoor activities. The American Legion welcomes any legislation that combines recreational therapy for veterans with the use of public resources.”

“Outdoor recreation therapies such as hunting and fishing provide camaraderie and healing for veterans who struggle with the wounds of war. The VFW supports expanding such opportunities for veterans and thanks Congressman Chris Smith for introducing the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act,” said VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace. “This bill would rightfully evaluate and remove barriers to access for veterans who would like to use outdoor activities to cope with their service-related illnesses and injuries.”

“The outdoors provide military families a much-needed place of recreation, rejuvenation, and healing. At Blue Star Families, programs such as Blue Star Parks connect the military community to nature, because the parks make a difference.  An overwhelming majority of military families report that visiting parks provides a much-needed outlet from the stress of their daily lives,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, Founder and CEO of Blue Star Families. “We commend this bi-partisan bill from Congressmen Chris Smith and Adam Smith, and Senators Cortez Masto and Daines, because it will make our nation’s backyard more accessible for our veteran community and their families. Protecting and preserving these beautiful lands is one of the reasons we serve and sacrifice, so it means so much to us to enjoy them with our families.”

“Veterans have demanded for years outdoor recreation programs be a part of our health treatment. It is long overdue for the VA to recognize this basic, yet vital need…they now have the opportunity to begin providing Veterans with this service!” said Robert White, VP of Internal Relations for Minority Veterans of America.

“At REI Co-op, we believe a life outdoors is a life well-lived.  It can even be healing, especially for our veterans who have sacrificed much of their lives to protect our nation,” said Eric Artz, REI’s President and CEO.  “We owe them our gratitude not just today, but every day.  So, we applaud congressmen Chris Smith and Adam Smith, and Senators Cortez Masto and Daines for taking this basic step—instructing the VA and the nation’s land managers to determine how our lands can be used to help our veterans heal.  We know the outdoors is good for you.  It’s only right that we make it as easy as possible for our veterans to rejuvenate among the country’s natural wonders.”

“As a combat veteran working at the intersection of public lands and outdoor recreation for veterans and military families, I have experienced the healing power of nature firsthand,” stated Rob Vessels, Director of Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Campaign and Army veteran. “The Sierra Club believes that every veteran should have the opportunity to get outdoors when they return home from service. We applaud and support this bi-partisan bill and thank Congressmen Chris Smith and Adam Smith, as well as all sponsors for their efforts to improve the lives of our veterans. When our veterans thrive, so too does our society.”

“Time outdoors was the place that put me not just on my healing journey, but my journey fully home when I got home from war. After casting about for two years trying to find a place to call home and a new mission and team, it was rock climbing, and later white water rafting and skiing that truly brought me back home,” said Stacy Bare, OIF Veteran 06-07, 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and Founder of Adventure Not War. “I commend any effort of Congress that helps veterans, service members, and their families, people just like me in making it easier to get outdoors. There are real, scientifically verified health benefits to time outdoors. Perhaps more importantly, time outdoors, structured the right way, helps encourage people to seek and complete traditional treatments. I couldn’t be prouder of this bi-partisan effort in Congress!”

“Outdoor recreation is an important part of caring for America’s veterans.  The legislation being introduced by Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Adam Smith, and Senators Cortez Masto and Daines, will help to develop needed coordination among our federal agencies to better understand how the outdoors can help and treat those who have served in uniform,” Jenn Dice, Vice Business for the Business Network of PeopleForBikes. “Our veterans deserve the best care available and looking into innovative solutions for leveraging our public lands is something we should all welcome.”

“Our public lands help define us – so much of who we are as a people, and what we have accomplished as a nation arise out of these cherished places,” observed Adam Cramer, Executive Director of Outdoor Alliance. “The power of our public lands to restore is self-evident, so we are delighted with the compassion of congressmen Chris Smith and Adam Smith, and Senators Cortez Masto and Daines, to better connect our veterans with the healing aspects of our public lands.”

“Veterans are integral to the outdoor industry — they rely on our outdoor products when they serve our country and many become key members of the outdoor industry workforce and leadership when they complete their service,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association. “We are also learning more and more about the unique and powerful connection between mental and physical health and being outdoors — we need to continue to do all we can to ensure that our veterans have access to the outdoors to heal, reconnect and enjoy the special places their service helps keep open and free.”

“Preliminary evidence suggests that outdoor hiking—combining the benefits of nature contact, group bonding, and physical activity—may be effective in treating veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We also know that nature contact has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and is associated with decreased likelihood of depression,” said Gregory Bratman, Doug Walker Endowed Professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. “This bill would provide an opportunity to maximize use of federal lands to gain more understanding about the ways in which nature experience benefits the people who have served our country, informing the design of future interventions aimed at addressing their pressing mental and physical health needs.”

“This study is needed to recognize the healing power of the outdoors for all users, especially our military veterans.  The benefits are real to anyone who has enjoyed our parks and public lands,” said Ani Kame’enui, Legislative Director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The combination of the outdoors and traditional mental health care has saved lives. Time and time again I’ve witnessed how veterans like myself with PTSD have benefited from the healing properties of nature, effective mental health care, and the rebuilding of community and confidence through challenging outdoor activity with fellow veterans,” said Joshua Brandon, Veteran and Ambassador for Outdoor Research. “While we have learned much about how to leverage nature-based activity in support of traditional healthcare, we still have a long road ahead of us in establishing this as a legitimate means of treatment for our veteran community. This bill by congressmen Adam Smith and Chris Smith, and Senators Cortez Masto and Daines, is a major step forward in achieving this goal. By enabling our veteran healthcare care providers and our land managers to work together to better serve our military community we open the door for much needed work in areas such as research, improved healthcare services, and nontraditional partnerships that will ultimately improve how we take care of our warriors when they return home from war.”