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Criticism trails Obamas on trip

Advocates urge ban on guns in national parks

On a family trip, President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters watched the eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park yesterday. On a family trip, President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters watched the eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park yesterday. (Mandel Ngan/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Liz Sidoti
Associated Press / August 16, 2009

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - Family in tow for a tour of national treasures far from Washington, President Obama is trailed by criticism from gun opponents and parks advocates for allowing firearms into such majestic places as Yellowstone.

“There is still time for Congress and the president to take steps to keep loaded firearms away from the valleys of Yellowstone, the cliffs of Yosemite, and the Statue of Liberty - but they need to act quickly,’’ said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

A bill that Obama signed in May permits licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges as long as state law allows it. The new law, which takes effect in February, will replace rules from the Reagan administration that generally require that guns in national parks be locked or stored in a glove compartment or trunk.

“If they wanted to fight that, they could have,’’ said Jonathan Dorn, editorial director of NationalParkTrips.com and editor in chief of Backpacker magazine. “That one just felt like a very political decision that was maybe more about politics than about maybe paying attention to the preferences of the vast majority of people who are frequent park users.’’

Still, Dorn called the law “one hiccup’’ in an otherwise supportive parks agenda so far by the Obama administration.

The Democratic-controlled Congress passed the less restrictive measure with bipartisan support after Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, inserted it into Obama-backed legislation imposing new restrictions on credit card companies. Democratic leaders decided not to challenge Coburn, and Obama signed the gun measure without comment.

Politically, the move thrilled gun-rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association and outdoorsmen. They generally lean conservative, which may help Obama’s soft standing with centrists and independents. But it certainly didn’t set well with some of Obama’s core Democratic constituencies, environmentalists, and gun control backers.

The Obama family had a busy sightseeing weekend planned: trekking in Yellowstone National Park yesterday, including a visit to Old Faithful, and touring Grand Canyon National Park today.

Their stops come during one of three summer weekends when the administration waived entrance fees at 147 national parks and monuments to spur tourism and boost local economies.

Dorn applauded Obama for “making a pretty significant statement this early in his administration at a time when he’s got some pretty heavy things on his shoulders.’’

From the outset of his presidency, Obama signaled his would be an administration sympathetic to the parks. He signed legislation that set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness. That was one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in a quarter-century. Supporters said the law would strengthen the national parks system; opponents called it a “land grab.’’

Since then, the administration has taken several other steps that have encouraged parks advocates:

■ Proposed cutting the number of snowmobiles allowed daily into Yellowstone in the winter to 318 and requiring guided tours. It proposed a similar policy at other national parks. Wyoming has asked a federal judge to force Yellowstone to allow up to 740 snowmobiles a day.

■ Halted the filing of new mining claims on nearly 1 million acres of US Forest Service land near the Grand Canyon for two years while the administration studies whether uranium mining there should be permanently prohibited. It also has pledged to overhaul a 137-year-old hardrock mining law that favors the mining industry.

■ Devoted $750 million in economic stimulus money to address a maintenance backlog in parks and increased the operations budget request to Congress for parks by $100 million.

■ Picked Jon Jarvis, a biologist and 30-year-veteran who oversees the national parks across the West, to head the National Parks Service.