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Vets & Gold Star familes get free access to nat'l parks with new law named after late Grijalva staffer

Alexander Lofgren Veterans in the Parks Act named after Afghanistan War vet who died while hiking in Death Valley last spring

U.S. military veterans and the families of service members killed on active duty have free admission to national parks and national forests across the country, after President Joe Biden signed a package of laws on Monday that included the Alexander Lofgren Veterans in the Parks Act.

The measure, part of the National Defense Authorization Act, was named after an Afghanistan War veteran and staffer for U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva who died while hiking in Death Valley earlier this year.

Lofgren, 32, died in an accident while hiking with his girlfriend the national park in California in April.

The law provides free access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges. Previously, only current military personnel and their families had access to a free annual pass, but veterans and Gold Star families — the relatives of servicemembers killed on active duty while the military is engaged in hostilities — are now covered by the permanent waiver of entrance and standard amenity fees.

The "VIP" bill was introduced to Congress with Lofgren’s name by U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican from Iowa, in July. Lofgren had been a congressional aide for Grijalva in his Tucson district office and spent two years working for U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. He was a Wounded Warrior Fellow, a program that allows wounded and disabled veterans to work for Congress, and got a degree in Political Science from Arizona State University after completing his Army service in 2014.

The House passed the bill with a 363-70 bipartisan vote in early December, and the Senate later passed the bill with a 88-11 bipartisan vote on December 15. President Biden signed the Lofgren Act into law as part of the NDAA on Monday morning.

Emily Henkel, Lofgren’s girlfriend who was with him when he died, wrote on Facebook shortly after the bill’s signing, “I can’t tell yet if this makes this holiday season so much better or so much harder… but probably both.”

“You’ll always live on with me and within the lands that you loved so much,” she wrote. “I always knew you’d be with me on every adventure after your passing, but now your name and your legacy is the entire reason those who deserve it most can experience the epitome of freedom and bliss.”

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Grijalva also acknowledged Lofgren and the importance of the bill in a statement released Monday, saying the bill’s passage this holiday season “is a gift that I and so many others will cherish.”

“Alex was part of our extended family, and we miss him deeply,” Grijalva wrote. “He dedicated his time to serving fellow veterans and loved our national parks and sharing the peace that it brought him with others. With the signing of this law, now we permanently give the gift of free entry to national parks to our veterans and Gold Star families to use nature to help with their healing.”

Lofgren’s family released a statement alongside Grijalva’s saying, “as an advocate for veterans, a military family member and veteran himself, Alexander's wish to make National Parks accessible to veterans and Gold Star families has been realized through this act,” and thanks Congress for working diligently “to enable his hard work and legacy to continue.”

The program waives entrance fees at federal sites managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers. The measure does not lift fees for camping, transportation, special permits, reservation fees or tours.

Veterans can present veteran ID cards, Department of Defense or Veteran Health ID cards or a state-issued driver’s license or identification card to get free access. Gold Star families can download and print a voucher to show a ranger or keep on their dashboard.

The National Park Service has an interactive list of parks and national monuments, organized by state.

The U.S. Forest Service has an interactive national forest map online that shows camping sites, trailheads and spots for other outdoor activities, including fees and availability.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Courtesy of Raúl Grijalva

Alexandar Lofgren in a photo posted by U.S. Rep Raúl Grijalva on Facebook. Lofgren was working as a congressional aide for Grijalva when he died in a hiking accident in April.

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