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Derrick Z. Jackson

Deadly - guns in national parks

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / May 26, 2009
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IN ITS INFINITE cowardice, Congress is extending the same national park protections to guns as it does wildlife.

Proving that some corners of Obamaworld are just as insane as the Bush administration, Congress handed Obama a credit card reform bill last week where the biggest "Yahoo!" came not from debt-ridden consumers but the National Rifle Association. After months of trying, gun advocates finally managed to slap an amendment on the bill that allows people to carry loaded firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges.

Obama and the majority Democrats did little to stop it as the amendment passed the Senate 67-29 and the House, 279-147. Even with a popular president and renewed power, the Democrats remain as shell-shocked as ever as NRA lobbyist Chris Cox proclaimed, "This common-sense measure, offered by Senator Tom Coburn, gives law-abiding gun owners the option of protecting themselves."

If it is common sense that gun owners must pack heat in our most peaceful places, it is bound to guarantee a new level of craziness for the people who come to parks armed only with binoculars, cameras, backpacks, and sticks to roast marshmallows. It shows you a clear firewall between courage and cowardice that the Democrats will not cross.

You would think Congress has much more important things to do than to effectively elevate guns to the protected status of bears. The Government Accountability Office reported this spring that the Interior Department has a deferred maintenance backlog of between $13.2 billion and $19.4 billion. Within that is about a $9 billion maintenance backlog for the national parks. A GAO report last year found that staff levels at the nation's wildlife refuges declined by 8.4 percent from 2004 to 2007.

In a logical world, instead of listening to the NRA, Congress would have heeded the concerns of the US Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police, and the Association of National Park Rangers. Those groups vociferously opposed loaded guns in the parks. They have enough on their hands.

Randall Kendrick, a founder and former Park Rangers Lodge executive director, said, "We've seen it with banks and the bailouts. Money talks and the average voter who is not aligned with a single-issue group is left out in the cold." Kendrick said by phone that Obama disappointed him as well as Congress because "he's a person who is very articulate who is never at a loss for words. When he says this is a losing issue, it means that visitors and park rangers count less than riling up the NRA."

Kendrick, 65, retired in 1995 after 32 years of being a ranger. He is concerned that rangers will be more vulnerable to angry, armed visitors who know that backup for a ranger could be hours away instead of minutes for an urban cop. In addition, he says that poachers of rare resources may feel emboldened by the new law.

"We've got so many things out here that can bring thousands of dollars on the black market," Kendrick said, "turtles, black bear gall bladder, bear claws, orchids, cacti, ginseng, American Indian artifacts, chipped off petroglyphs. Rangers are already having a tough enough time with not enough staffing to protect them. Now you make it easier for people to come in with a shotgun. It means if we see a weapon on the seat, we may not be able to stop them and ask the question, 'Is that gun in there to protect a family or shoot a bear?' Instead of the gun being an offense, we have to wait until the damage is done."

Now that Congress and Obama have shown that guns in our parks are more important than the men and women we employ to protect us in them, there is no telling what next critical aspect of the environment they will cave in on. When they elevate guns to the status of eagles, bears, and our vistas, there is no guarantee for preservation of the real thing.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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