Mission for Colorado veterans back home: standing up for endangered species

Liz O’Herrin Lee of Denver smiles during a hike among the Rocky Mountains. She’s among Colorado veterans standing up for the Endangered Species Act. Photo Courtesy: The Gazette

Liz O’Herrin Lee was riding in the back of the truck, bumping through the Iraqi desert, on her way to do maintenance on bombs before they were loaded into F-16s, as was her job with the Air National Guard.

“Everything was gray,” she recalled. “The trees, the roads, the buildings. The grass was covered in dust.”

Then, suddenly, “a spark of color.”

A butterfly alighted on her leg. It was like the butterflies she watched in her mom’s garden back in Wisconsin.

Later, in an essay, O’Herrin Lee wrote of her silent wish for the visitor: “Go far away from here.”

She managed to escape, too. Back in the states, she embarked on a salmon fishing trip in Alaska.

“Just to be in such wild country just a couple months after I got back from being mortared in Iraq,” she said, “it was just sort of this gigantic reset button.”

O’Herrin Lee, now living in Denver, continues a mission — an unlikely one, perhaps, that she shares with fellow Colorado veterans:

To stand up for the Endangered Species Act.

Urged last year by what scientists found to be an ongoing extinction crisis in the animal kingdom, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Vet Voice Foundation rallied a dozen service people in the fall to meet with lawmakers in the nation’s capital. In light of rollbacks to the ESA, the foundation considered the administration guilty of “reckless attacks” on imperiled creatures.

“Our goal was to be nontraditional environmental advocates,” said Kate Holt, the organization’s California-based Western states director, with eight years in the Army Reserve.

Holt found several like-minded military people, those who “believe protecting our lands is a patriotic duty.” She spoke with men and women like her who, after deployments to the Middle East, came home to discover, as she put it, “a newfound appreciation for these lands and animals.”

One of those was Sara Poquette of Colorado Springs. When the Air National Guard veteran returned from Iraq, the outdoors “brought me back from a mindset of war and PTSD,” she said.

Poquette found purpose continuing her duty here: advocating “for things that make America America.” That included the animals.

The calling is the same for Ricardo Chavez of Black Forest, with 21 years in the Army. He was there in Washington, D.C., last fall to share his worries.

He had a young son back home who loved the mountains as much as he did, along with the wildlife that made trips even more special. Would they be there in the future?

“I understand (Donald Trump’s) position as president, and I don’t negate the fact that he’s the man in charge,” Chavez said in an interview. “But in regards to the ESA, I think the administration does not care to fully invest in the ESA at all.”

Critics — 22 states’ attorneys general filed a lawsuit — saw last year’s rollbacks as favoring corporate interests over fragile habitats. By weakening provisions, red tape would be cut for development and oil and gas exploration, they argued, while Trump’s commerce of secretary called the changes “within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.”

O’Herrin Lee is unconvinced. A butterfly, the Uncompahgre fritillary, is among Colorado’s endangered species. A small creature, sure, but no less capable of stirring wonder — as that one did in the dreary desert years ago.

“If we’re not careful in how we protect it,” O’Herrin Lee said, “it’s very easy to chip away at that, and before we know it, we won’t have what we once took for granted.”

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