Ending a 25-year-old ban, the Department of the Interior announced this month that anyone with a state concealed-weapon permit may bring a loaded weapon into a national park, forest or refuge. A week later, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne confirmed what supporters of the Endangered Species Act have dreaded all year, issuing a ruling that lets federal agencies decide themselves whether their projects harm the environment, without consulting 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. Now critters and plants have less protection, and humans have to wonder what's 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 all expressed disappointment. Under the expiring regulations, unloaded weapons were allowed in parks as long as they remained in a car trunk or other relatively inaccessible location.
The organizations wrote in a joint letter: "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 U.S. park ranger is high: U.S. 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 it is to lift the ban: It was enacted under Ronald Reagan's Interior secretary, James Watt. Watt was so criticized by environmentalists that the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams called him "one of the most dangerous government officials in history."
If that anti-environmental administration saw fit to ban loaded guns in the parks, what does that make the Bush administration?
The lifting of the ban and the lowering of the gate against scientists cap an era in which wildlife-refuge staffing has fallen 8.4 percent since 2004, and the refuges' purchasing power has fallen by 11 percent since 2003.
Most ironically, the acts come in the wake of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that the refuges' law-enforcement staff needs to double, at least. "Low staffing levels are leading to a substantial and critical lack of law-enforcement coverage and capability at many refuges across the system," the report said. "At many refuges, law-enforcement coverage is insufficient to ensure the protection of resources and the safety of visitors and refuge staff."
Yet the Bush administration's answer is to starve law enforcement and general staff, cut off the scientists, and flood the parks and refuges with loaded guns. Overturning this has to be a priority for the Obama administration and the Democrat-led Congress. We cannot allow our sacred places to become the Wild West.