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Gallego leads bipartisan push to expand veterans' free access to national parks

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego is joining an Iowa Republican to push for legislation that would give veterans and Gold Star families free lifetime access to national parks and public federal lands. Iowa Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks testified Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee hearing in support of the measure.

"No one is more worthy of experiencing open access to the incredible places that these men and women have fought to keep us free and their families who have also made the ultimate sacrifice along with them," she said.

Miller-Meeks is a veteran and worked on the bill, the "Veterans in Parks Act," with Gallego, an Arizona Democrat who is also a veteran.

"As a veteran, I know firsthand the importance of national parks as a place of connection and healing when dealing with the visible and invisible wounds of war," Gallego said in a statement.

"The VIP Act is an important step in ensuring that veterans, service members, and Gold Star families have access to the public lands they and their loved ones fought to protect."

Last year, the U.S. National Park Service made annual visits to national parks free for veterans and active duty service members, but the bill, H.R. 4300, would codify that annual pass into law, to be used throughout their lives.

"We can never fully repay our veterans for their service and sacrifice, but we want to show our gratitude by giving them lifetime access to America's beautiful landscapes," Miller-Meeks said.

The bill would also give active-duty military free annual passes to national parks and public federal lands. Once those members retire, their passes could be converted to lifetime passes. A Gold Star family is an immediate family member of a service member who died in the line of duty.

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Capt. John Paluska, from Ottumwa, Iowa, testified before the panel in support of the bill.

He said that in between his deployments, he would often visit Yellowstone National Park "and find my freedom all throughout the park."

"There's something about connecting to nature at these parks that helps with the healing," he said. "I will always carry the wounds of war with me wherever I go, but when I go to these beautiful places, I am able to connect with one of the reasons I decided to serve—this incredible, beautiful, country."

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Hikers descend the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail in this 2013 file photo. Uranium mining backers agree that the Grand Canyon is an 'irreplaceable jewel,' but insist it would not be threatened by modern mining.