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Don't erode gun rules in the parks

National parks are special places that enjoy the highest level of protection provided to public lands by Congress. Originally, the U.S. Army, and since its creation in 1916, the National Park Service, have continually worked to protect park resou...

Hart

National parks are special places that enjoy the highest level of protection provided to public lands by Congress. Originally, the U.S. Army, and since its creation in 1916, the National Park Service, have continually worked to protect park resources and to inspire park visitors.

The Bush administration, in response to intense political pressure orchestrated by the National Rifle Association, has just announced that it will reopen the regulations governing firearms in our national parks. This brings up serious issues for park rangers, visitors and wildlife.

Poaching and resource degradation have been 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. The main objective of this rule was to protect park wildlife from poaching and to provide rangers with an enforcement tool.

In 1970, Congress declared that superlative natural, historic and recreation areas should be managed as one seamless National Park System. In 1983, during the Reagan administration, park regulations were modified to apply to all park areas in the system. Firearms were allowed in national park areas as long as they were unloaded and stored out of easy reach. In those 60 park units where hunting is authorized, hunters are permitted to carry firearms during open hunting season.

The current firearm regulations have been in place now for 25 years. In my more than 38 years as a park ranger and a park manager, these regulations were developed with full public input and have worked very well. The only clamor for change has come recently from the political arena. Crime in national park areas remains considerably lower than in surrounding communities, but when poachers, drug traffickers and other serious offenders are caught inside the parks, the current firearms restrictions add further weight to the government's prosecution of criminals. A person's failure to comply with the simple requirement of properly stowing a weapon can be an indication to rangers that something might be amiss.

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Changing the regulations could open up some of the most remote parkland in the contiguous 48 states, including backcountry areas in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton to people with any type of legal firearm. Increasingly, urban-based visitors find themselves out of their comfort zone while enjoying their national parks. With that said, reasonable precautions such as bear awareness programs, food storage enforcement and the carrying of pepper spray by backcountry users have reduced bear encounters. If firearms are added to the equation, unintended results could be devastating to the individual, other backcountry users and wildlife.

Like our military reservations, veterans hospital grounds and other controlled federal installations, firearms and their use have long been restricted in our nearly 400 national park areas. To travel through the entrance station of a national park is to enter a special place. Long-time NPS employee Bill Brown in his book "Islands of Hope" (1971), characterized national parks as "sanctuaries of nature, as landmarks of history and culture, and as places of contemplation, discovery and adventure." He goes on to say that there is another quality, an ambience of shared sociability and pleasure in these welcoming, neutral lands. Relaxing firearms regulations in the parks will be detrimental to this refuge ideal that national parks have come to signify for American families over the past century.

Our national park sites vary from Yellowstone to Independence Hall and from Theodore Roosevelt to the Lincoln Memorial. They are meant to be special places of inspiration and education with a sense of tranquility, history and beauty. The current regulations, which allow guns in parks with reasonable restrictions on how they are carried, have been working for many years. They protect the safety of humans and wildlife but do not unduly infringe on gun ownership rights. The existing regulations do not limit the rights of law-abiding citizens any more than luggage searches or metal detectors at airports or federal buildings. Re-opening these regulations for review is unnecessary, and any proposed relaxation of these rules should be shot down.

Hart has served as a protection ranger, chief ranger and superintendent of some 17 national park areas from Theodore Roosevelt and Glacier to Great Smoky Mountains for more than 38 years. He was superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt for several years in the '90s and currently resides in Livingston, Mont.

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