By Danny Bernstein • Guest Columnist
Our national parks have been assaulted by new rulings in the closing days of the Bush Administration. Users and lovers of the national parks have to say no — no guns, no bikes, and no dogs.
The Bush Administration has finalized a decision to allow concealed, loaded firearms at 388 of 391 national park sites. That includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The administration did not listen to the vast majority of comments from people who said “no” to allowing guns in national parks. Nor did they listen to the professionals such as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.
What upsets me is that these folks making these decisions have never spent a night sleeping cheek to jowl in a shelter or discussed and argued about where to put up a tent. I wonder when they last walked a backcountry trail in a national park. Professional park associations are concerned about opportunistic wildlife killings. Someone sees a bear, panics and shoots it. I’m just as concerned about a person in a shelter getting into an argument over personal space or noise and pulling out a gun. I’ve asked campers to pick up their trash on the trail and campsite and I often get ignored or even cursed out. What if this litterer now has a gun?
“If you’re allowed to carry a concealed weapon on Main Street, you’re allowed to carry that weapon in a national park and wildlife refuge,” an Interior Department spokesman said. This ruling even reached the British newspapers. It’s not going to sound good to international visitors who already think that all Americans carry guns down the street. Yet, national parks are one of the safest places to walk. They’re also the best place to see wildlife, because mountain bikes are not allowed on the trails. Until now.
The National Park Service is considering a plan to relax their regulations governing bicycles on trails. This change potentially is being made without public notice or review and would allow Park Superintendents to designate trails for mountain biking. That means that you could be meeting a cyclist coming down the hill on the Alum Cave Trail in the Smokies as you huff and puff up to Mt. LeConte. That scenario in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not too-far fetched.
Another unintended consequence. Mountain bikers are more prone to accidents and need more rescues than hikers. The Smokies doesn’t need the extra expense of pulling out people who crash on their bikes. Currently the Smokies doesn’t charge an entrance fee and it doesn’t charge for rescues, as several parks do. The park is so underfunded that it shouldn’t be asked to spend more money on rescues or law enforcement.
No one has yet talked about lifting the ban on dogs on backcountry trails, but I stand ready for that one also. There are good reasons why guns, bikes, and dogs are not allowed on the trails. The national parks are meant to preserve the environment and leave it unimpaired for future generations. You want to bike with your dog and gun, go to Pisgah or Nantahala National Forests where hiking is only one of many uses. There’s a big difference between a National Park and a National Forest. In Pisgah, the trails are rougher and less maintained so mountain bikes are not going to make much of a difference.
I have nothing against cyclists, hunters, or dog owners — well maybe dog owners if they can’t control their dogs. Just not in a national park.