PUBLIC LANDS:

Guns in parks make for a messy, sometimes violent mix

The call came in shortly after midnight at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in central California. Numerous shots had been fired in the park's popular Sentinel campground, which was packed at the time with campers.

When park rangers arrived, they found terrified campers who told them a man, presumably frightened by a black bear foraging for table scraps, emerged from his tent firing into the dark. Rangers collected nine bullet casings.

It was a miracle that no one was hurt, said J.D. Swed, the chief park ranger at the time of the incident two summers ago.

"There were probably 400 people there at the time, and he's shooting a 9-millimeter handgun at a bear that apparently is leaving as this guy is walking around chasing after the bear," said Swed, who retired in January after 33 years with the Park Service. "I can't imagine a police officer in a situation, even if it were a life-or-death situation, ever firing a weapon in a crowded campground like that to protect himself."

To some, the 2007 incident at Sequoia and Kings Canyon is an example of what rangers and visitors will see more often as a new federal law allowing people to carry loaded weapons in the nation's 391 national parks and 550 national wildlife refuges takes effect next February.

Congress passed the gun legislation last week as an amendment to an unrelated bill implementing credit card industry reforms. President Obama signed the measure into law last Friday. Once enacted, the legislation will replace a 1983 law that allows guns in national parks as long as they are unloaded and stored.

But the law's passage will not end the debate over private gun rights in national parks and wildlife refuges, where instances of directed violence or just careless gun-wielding continue to draw attention from law enforcement agencies and the courts.

Just this week, with the ink barely dried on the new legislation, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a three-year prison sentence for a 21-year-old man who participated in a drunken shooting spree in 2007 that terrorized campers on Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the state's Superior National Forest, where guns are allowed.

Public safety vs. gun rights

The Interior Department says its new gun policy will take nine months to implement because officials need to carefully evaluate how the law will be applied across the Park Service's diverse portfolio of sites, ranging from the remote backcountry of Yellowstone to urban landmarks like New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty or San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Proponents, including lawmakers who voted for the change, say the new policy is necessary for myriad reasons. They include expanding recreational opportunities for gun owners as well as protecting park visitors from wild animals and armed criminals, including at NPS sites along the U.S.-Mexico border where drug smuggling and gun-running have created serious public safety concerns.

Officials with the National Rifle Association, the most active lobbying group in support of the gun legislation, declined a request for an interview. But a statement published on the group's Web site called the bill's passage "a major repudiation of the gun control community's anti self-defense agenda."

"This step brings clarity and uniformity for law-abiding gun owners visiting our national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris Cox, the group's executive director, in a statement. "NRA will continue to pursue every avenue to defend the American people's right of self-defense."

Federal officials, especially during the Bush administration, have also raised concerns about public safety in parks.

In a September report to former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the department's inspector general noted that the "physical isolation" of some park sites and buildings "increases their vulnerability to threats and inhibits the Department's response time."

But the gun law comes at a time when crimes committed at national parks are at the lowest levels in more than a decade.

The 3,760 reported major crimes at NPS sites in 2008, ranging from murders and rapes to burglaries, is the lowest since at least 1995, according to an analysis of NPS crime statistics.

Opponents of the new policy, including current and former law enforcement officials, say that trend could be reversed as loaded weapons begin making their way into parks and wildlife refuges.

"The biggest fear is people will be wandering around in the woods with firearms," said Doug Morris, a former NPS chief park ranger in California. "Now we'll have our backcountry filled with morons carrying guns."

Law enforcement's thin ranks

Among other things, the new policy raises questions about whether the Park Service and other federal agencies have sufficient law enforcement personnel to monitor gun-related activity in parks and refuges.

The Interior Department employs 1,416 law enforcement rangers to enforce park rules, protect natural resources and ensure the safety of more than 300 million visitors each year to national parks, monuments, battlefields, seashores, and scenic rivers and trails covering nearly 85 million acres.

That is roughly 400 fewer rangers than a decade ago, said John Waterman, president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police, which is comprised mostly of rangers.

"We're totally reactive, not proactive anymore, because we don't have enough rangers," Waterman said.

In last year's inspector general report, investigators noted that the U.S. Park Police -- the Interior Department force that guards national park sites such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty and has jurisdiction at all NPS facilities -- "lacks adequate staffing and formal training for those responsible for protecting national icons."

And while national parks statistically are among the safest places in the country to visit, rangers and U.S. Park Police officers are among the most assaulted federal officers, according to the latest federal crime statistics.

Of 107 assaults on law enforcement rangers in 2007, 30 resulted in injury, according to the FBI's annual "Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted" report. That is nearly half of all federal enforcement officer assault injuries for that year, according to statistics.

The U.S. Park Police, in its annual performance report, reported that 40 officers were assaulted and 11 were hurt in 2007. Meanwhile, an estimated 13 Fish and Wildlife Service officers were assaulted in 2007, with one injured, according to FBI data.

Firearms were not used in any of the officer assaults, according to the FBI statistics.

To supplement dwindling law enforcement ranks, the Park Service has been hiring seasonal park rangers, including about 1,000 officers to assist law-enforcement personnel, said NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

Morris, the former chief park ranger, said such seasonal rangers are the least experienced and the least trained.

"And now we're adding an extra layer of danger," he added.

Increased vandalism

But risks to law enforcement, real or imagined, are not the only issues facing park managers as the new guns policy takes effect.

Lessons from other land management agencies suggest that the Park Service will also juggle a host of other management challenges -- from overseeing recreational target shooting to repairing hole-riddled signs and structures damaged by vandals.

While the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have for years relied on state laws to dictate how and where guns can be used, agency reports document a long history of irresponsible and even unlawful gun use, resulting in damage to natural resources, cultural sites and even endangered species.

Such damage has prompted the agencies to begin revising resource management plans at some popular Western monuments and visitor sites to more explicitly state how and where guns can be used.

For example, at BLM's La Cieneguilla Petroglyph site near Santa Fe, N.M., petroglyphs as old as 8,000 years have been "damaged by deliberate shooting" and others have been damaged by stray bullets that "can carry up to two or more miles in distance," according to the federal announcement of the proposed changes to the site's resource management plan.

BLM is also concerned about public safety. In addition to the petroglyphs -- ancient rock carvings of great cultural significance to many Native American tribes -- a parking lot and hiking trails are near a designated target-shooting site, said Sam DesGeorges, a BLM field manager in Taos, N.M..

"Hiking and shooting don't mix very well," DesGeorges said.

Sometimes the gun damage is less sinister but nevertheless degrades sites by leaving behind unsightly spent ammunition and the remains of shooting targets.

At the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument, west of Tucson, Ariz., managers are considering a target shooting ban in part because some visitors are bringing discarded computers and television sets into the site, where they blast them to pieces, leaving behind a huge mess, according to monument officials.

Others have riddled endangered saguaro cacti with bullet holes. And in one instance, someone placed an old microwave oven on the limb of an ironwood tree and shot it to bits, killing the tree in the process, said Cindy Alvarez, assistant field manager in the BLM's Tucson office.

Revisions to gun policies are also under way at other BLM sites, including Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado and the Aqua Fria National Monument near Phoenix, Ariz.

The Forest Service, meanwhile, has opted to close 81,000 "urban interface" acres in the nearly 3-million-acre Tonto National Forest in Arizona to shooting due mostly to concerns about trash and public safety.

Vandalism also remains a major problem at almost all federal land sites.

Over the past 10 years, the Park Service reported nearly 10,000 incidents of looting and vandalism of cultural resources, much of it associated with theft of park property and the defacing of structures.

Adding guns to the mix just makes such problems more difficult to address, critics say.

"If we're going to provide the same level of protection of resources and ensuring visitor safety, we're going to need a hell of a lot more enforcement officers," said Bryan Faehner, the National Parks Conservation Association's associate director for park uses.

Wildlife poaching

NPCA and other critics say park managers also can expect a resurgence in illegal hunting on park and refuge properties as the line between what is allowed and what is not becomes blurred by the new policy.

In fact, gun restrictions at national parks were originally designed foremost to target wildlife poachers -- not vandals or public menaces -- and until the 1983 law allowing the possession of unloaded and stored weapons in parks, visitors were required to surrender their guns before entering a park, and anyone caught carrying a firearm was immediately stopped and detained.

Waterman, the president of the FOP's U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, said such policies have been effective. "We have been able to use the regulations to stop poachers," he said.

Today, at NPS sites like the Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania, where Waterman serves as a law enforcement ranger, hunters continue to track game on lands just beyond the park's boundaries, where they sometimes shoot into the park at bears, elk and other wildlife.

The new law, Waterman said, will tempt hunters to track animals inside the park, where any animal taking is considered illegal.

"Right now, we can keep an eye on them. With this new regulation, we will not be able to do that, because they can have that weapon at any time, and can come into the park with it," he said. "We'll have to work harder to find a probable cause for stopping people we suspect are poachers.

"It will just give them a larger opportunity to break the law."

Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.