By Audrey Jensen
A bill that would give all veterans and Gold Star families free access to national parks and public federal lands for life and was named after Alexander Lofgren, an Arizona congressional aide who died at Death Valley National Park in April, passed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.
The Alexander Lofgren Veterans in Parks (VIP) Act — bipartisan bill H.R. 4300 — would permanently waive national park fees for any veteran or Gold Star family member. The legislation would also give free annual passes to active-duty military for national parks and federal recreational lands.
U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, a veteran who served 24 years in the Army, presented the bill with U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is also a veteran, in July.
"No one is more worthy of experiencing open access to these incredible places than the men and women who have fought to keep us free and the families who have made the ultimate sacrifice," Miller-Meeks said during the House floor debate on Monday.
"We can never fully repay our veterans for their service and their sacrifice, but we want to show our gratitude by giving them lifetime access to America's most beautiful landscapes."
The U.S. National Park Service announced in 2020 that veterans and Gold Star families would receive a lifetime of free entry to parks in addition to active-duty military members who receive free entry.
If signed into law, the bill would make free access permanent. The bill has 150 co-sponsors and endorsements from 60 organizations, representatives said on Monday.
The bill was recently named after Lofgren, a veteran who worked for U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, as a Wounded Warrior Fellow and caseworker in Tucson.
Lofgren, a combat veteran who used outdoors as therapy
Lofgren, 32, died after going missing during a camping trip in Death Valley and was found on a remote, steep ledge with his girlfriend, Emily Henkel, 27, who was hospitalized. Both Grijalva and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema expressed their condolences for Lofgren, who had also interned for Sinema.
In 2019, Grijalva announced that Lofgren was hired for his district staff as part of the Wounded Warrior Fellowship program. He served four years in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer and deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, according to Grijalva.
As a fellow, Lofgren worked with southern Arizona veterans on issues regarding Veterans Affairs health care, benefits and more, according to a 2019 statement.
Grijalva said Lofgren was passionate about the outdoors and used it as therapy after serving in Afghanistan. He wanted to use nature to help other veterans, so Grijalva said he honored Lofgren by adding his name to the bill.
"Alex working with us here saw that nature, our open spaces, our state and federal park lands and wilderness areas and public places were therapeutic, that they were important in the reintegrations of veterans back into our civilian life here after they completed their service to the nation, and he was a huge proponent of that," Grijalva told The Arizona Republic.
Grijalva said Lofgren knew the struggles of reintegration and the "ghost of war" and that his commitment was to "serve fellow veterans, and he did that well." Lofgren wanted to integrate natural spaces into recovery for veterans, so adding his name to the bill will provide that connotation, Grijalva added.
"The parks are there for recreating, for solace, but they're also there for support and in some instances for therapy," Grijalva said.
The loss of Lofgren was a "horrible tragedy," but now the bill can speak to Lofgren's work for veterans and the relationship between nature and veterans, Grijalva said. Grijalva said in a statement that he urges the Senate to "act quickly," pass the legislation, and send it to President Joe Biden for his signature.
"Although he is no longer with us, his legacy will forever live on in this legislation that will allow countless veterans and Gold Star Families to experience our national parks as places of healing, comfort, and security indefinitely," Grijalva said in a statement.
Lofgren died after being found with girlfriend in Death Valley
Lofgren and Henkel were found on a remote, steep ledge in the Willow Creek area of Death Valley National Park on April 9 after they went missing during their camping trip.
When the couple didn't return on the due date of their trip, the Inyo County Sheriff's Office started searching for the couple, who were considered experienced campers and had jugs of water and at least a day's worth of food and camping gear.
After searching nearby hotels, monuments and attractions, park officials found the couple's missing white Subaru off Gold Valley Road and found a note that said, “Two flat tires, headed to Mormon Point, have three days’ worth of water.”
Their car broke down on the unmaintained, four-wheel-drive Gold Valley Road in Gold Valley near Smith Mountain, officials said. The two hiked west into wilderness toward Mormon Point, which is near paved road.
A technical search and rescue team found the couple 2 miles away from their destination using aerial reconnaissance of the extremely remote area, officials said. Crews were initially unable to reach the couple due to the location, but later rescued Henkel, who was hospitalized, and recovered Lofgren, who was pronounced dead.
In a public Facebook post, Henkel re-shared a press release after the act had been passed out of the Natural Resources Committee. At the end of the statement, she wrote, "I told ya you'd live on forever, my friend. You'll NEVER be forgotten. I know you wouldn't have wanted this any other way."
A GoFundMe account that was set up for the family of Lofgren and Henkel had raised nearly $50,000 as of July 29.
More information about current free annual passes for active-duty service members and free entry for veterans and Gold Star Families can be found on the National Park Service's website.