National parks such as Mount Rainier, Olympic and the Lincoln Memorial are special places. They preserve some of America's most sacred ideas, hopes and sites. They shouldn't be battlegrounds for special interests to push a dangerous political agenda.
Unfortunately, the National Rifle Association doesn't agree. And if the NRA gets its way, families traveling to parks would need to consider packing bulletproof vests, along with their cameras, backpacks and tents.
The Bush administration, in response to intense political pressure coordinated by the NRA, has announced its plan to reopen, and thus weaken, the reasonable, Reagan-era regulations governing firearms in national parks. This brings up serious issues for park rangers, visitors and wildlife.
National parks have faced poaching and resource degradation problems since Yellowstone was set aside as the world's first national park in 1872. In 1936, to address this issue, the secretary of the interior issued the first rules regarding firearms in national parks. The regulations prohibited anyone from carrying a gun within the parks unless they obtained written permission from a park officer and the weapon was sealed.
Later, the Reagan administration implemented the current set of regulations, which permit firearms in national park areas as long as they are unloaded and stored out of easy reach. In those 60 park units where hunting is authorized, hunters are permitted to carry firearms during hunting season. Existing park gun regulations do not limit the rights of law-abiding citizens any more than luggage searches or metal detectors at airports or federal buildings.
Crime in national park areas is significantly lower than in surrounding communities, and wildlife poaching, while still a threat, is nowhere near the problem it was before the rules were put in place. In other words, the rules work.
In what must be troubling for the NRA, there is no public outcry to loosen the rules. If park visitation is an indication, people are voting their approval for the restrictions with their feet. Park visitation is up from previous years with approximately 270 million people going to the parks in 2007. This isn't surprising. National parks are sanctuaries, one of the last places where people can get away from the stresses, strains and frankly the violence of everyday life. Loosening the gun rules would alter the parks' atmosphere and destroy a primary reason people visit.
And park regulations on firearm use have passed legal muster. In National Rifle Association v. Potter, the court found the Park Service's general ban on hunting constitutional because it represents a measured approach for protecting park wildlife and natural wonders. The Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents National Park Service Rangers, wrote Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne opposing any change to current regulations, stating support for the current rules and concern that proposed changes could cause more opportunity for crime, including wildlife poaching.
So, if the current rules are protecting public safety, deterring poachers, preserving parks' special qualities, legally sound and supported by the American public, it raises the question: Why change them? Before the country sets down this dangerous path and potentially destroys its national parks forever, the public deserves an answer. Reopening the parks' gun rules for review is unnecessary, and any relaxation of the rules would be a grave mistake.
Reed Jarvis is a retired 36-year National Park Service veteran, having served as a park manager and Pacific Northwest Regional Chief Ranger. He served as assistant superintendent of Olympic National Park for eight years.
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