Policy Update

States Honor Gold Star Families, Veterans, and Active Military with State Parks Access

May 27, 2024



NCEL Point of Contact

Grant Gliniecki
Outdoor Policy Coordinator



This Memorial Day, states across the country honor military men and women who died defending our nation by offering free state park access to their families and/or fellow service members. State parks and historic sites offer spaces to gather, heal, and celebrate on the public lands protected and guaranteed by military service members. 

  • Why it matters: Time outdoors reduces symptoms of PTSD and depression in both active-duty military and veterans. According to the National PTSD Center, 11-20% of veterans will have PTSD in their lifetimes. At least 20% of veterans and active-duty military suffer from depression.

 “Granting veterans access to the outdoors within their local communities can be transformative, particularly for those contending with a myriad of stressors. From the upheaval of recent discharge to grappling with physical or moral injuries sustained during service, the solace found in nature can be profound.” – Vedia Barnett, disabled Air Force veteran and Senior Campaign Representative of Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors

California (AB 150 2013) and Oregon (ORS 390.124) offer free access to veterans and active duty military on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. 

Year-Round Parks Access

The National Park Service offers a free lifetime Military Pass for Gold Star Families and military veterans and a free annual Military Pass for current service members and their dependents. Maine LD 322 (2021) and New Jersey A. 4401 / S. 2854 (2017) exempt Gold Star Families– the immediate family of a fallen service member– from state park admission and facility fees. 

Currently, at least 22 states offer free state park access for disabled veterans based on military disability ratings. However, disability ratings often drastically undercount mental health and veterans face significant, unique barriers in traditional mental health care. States can remove the disability rating requirement and follow Alabama, Maine, New York, and Oklahoma in offering free parks access for all veterans. 

Drawing on her experience as a veteran advocate and Senior Campaign Representative of Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program, Vedia Barnett reflects that “free state park passes represent a vital step in dismantling barriers to outdoor recreation, offering veterans a pathway to healing and rejuvenation amidst the tranquility of nearby nature.”

Legislation Spotlight: Alabama’s Parks for Patriots Program

Parks & Recreation can recover lost admission fees through donations from the public. Alabama HB 58, the Parks for Patriots program, offers free year-round parks access for veterans and active military primarily funded by public donations. Originating as a voluntary program in a handful of parks, it gained enough public support to go statewide thanks to the combined efforts of the Department of Natural Resources and the legislature.

Both the original DNR voluntary program and proceeding state law have been met with broad bipartisan support. Sponsoring legislator of the Parks for Patriots Program, Rep. Dickie Drake, was awarded with an Alabama State Parks Eagle Award for outstanding legislative efforts in supporting the parks.