Bill would promote state parks and wilderness as therapy for veterans

Legislative Gazette photo by James Gormley

A bill aimed at providing veterans with easier access to state parks and wildlife areas passed the Assembly on February 13 and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.

The bill (S.6706-a/A.8094-a), sponsored by Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, would require a study on the barriers that veterans face in accessing the outdoors and identify ways to fix them.

The goal of the legislation, which passed the Assembly unanimously, is to promote the great outdoors as a form of therapy for veterans who are suffering from physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. According to the bill text, “Recent studies have found that time outdoors can be valuable adjunct therapy in addition to more traditional types of health care.”

Didi Barrett

The New York State Division of Veterans’ Service in consultation with the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health and the Office of Mental Health would be required to study the obstacles veterans face in taking advantage of the natural, outdoor resources of New York state and make plans to eliminate and reduce those barriers.

For example, the bill cites transportation issues, handicap accessibility, cultural barriers, mental health stigmas, public awareness of outdoor resources, lack of experience in the outdoors, and funding for public and private programs as potential barriers that may keep some veterans from enjoying the state’s natural resources.

“Access to nature is a human right, and there are clear physical and mental benefits to outdoor experiences,” said The Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Campaign Manager, Rob Vessels. “There are 20 million veterans in the U.S., but only a tiny fraction of them get to experience the outdoors.”

Brian Benjamin

Vessels further explained that with the Outdoor RX bill, New York State could lead by example in prioritizing veteran’s access to the outdoors and establishing relationships between agencies and organizations that offer outdoor programs.

The bill has been sent to the Senate and has advanced to a third reading. According to the bill memo, it was recently amended to improve the language related to the barriers that exist for veterans to use New York’s natural resources.