Ending a 25-year-old ban, the Department of the Interior announced on Dec. 5 that people who have a concealed weapons permit in their state can bring a loaded weapon into national parks, forests, and refuges. A week later, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne confirmed what supporters of the Endangered Species Act have dreaded all year by issuing a ruling that lets individual federal agencies decide themselves whether their projects harm the environment - without being forced to consult with wildlife scientists.
This completes eight years of political cruelty to animals and a final imposition of the National Rifle Association on what is left of public serenity in America - our shared natural sanctuaries. Critters and plants have less protection, and now humans have to wonder what is more dangerous: an alligator along the trail in the Everglades or the loaded camper carrying a loaded weapon.
The lifting of the loaded gun ban was opposed by nearly everyone who works or has worked in a national park. The Association of National Park Rangers, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police (which advocates for park rangers) expressed disappointment at the action by the Interior Department. Under the expiring regulations, you could bring an unloaded weapon into a park, as long as it remained in a car trunk or other less-accessible location.
Citing concerns about a possible increase in poaching and a federal statistic that only 1.65 violent crimes occur per 100,000 visitors in national parks, the organizations wrote in a joint letter on Dec. 5, "National parks are different from other public lands. The visitor population expects, demands and gets a higher degree of protection, enforcement and restriction in a national park. Furthermore, while national parks are amongst the safest areas to be in, the toll on the US Park Ranger is high: US Park Rangers are the most assaulted federal officers in the country. This vague, wide-open regulation will only increase the danger."
To put in perspective how nuts the lifting of the ban is, it was enacted under President Reagan's Interior secretary, James Watt. Watt was so criticized by environmentalists that the great national park landscape photographer Ansel Adams called him "one of the most dangerous government officials in history." Of Reagan's environmental policies in general, Adams said, "The flow of bilge from the Reagan administration is a blot upon our history of literacy."
If that environmentally illiterate administration saw fit to ban loaded guns in the parks a quarter-century ago, what does that make the Bush administration? The lifting of the gun ban and the lowering of the gate against scientists cap an era where wildlife refuge staffing has fallen 8.4 percent since 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office report this fall. Real purchasing power for the refuges has fallen by 11 percent since 2003.
Most ironically, the acts come in the wake of an independent report last summer commissioned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that found that the law enforcement staff at our refuges needs to increase from 200 full-time officers to at least 400. "Low staffing levels are leading to a substantial and critical lack of law enforcement coverage and capability at many refuges across the system. At many refuges, law enforcement coverage is insufficient to ensure the protection of resources and the safety of visitors and refuge staff."
Yet the solution by the Bush administration is to starve law enforcement and general staff, cut off the scientists, and flood the parks and refuges with loaded guns. This has to be a priority for the Obama administration and a Democratic-led Congress to overturn. We cannot allow our sacred places to become the wild west.