Now you can take your gun camping
New legislation repeals prohibition of firearms in national parks
By Jenny Neyman
Captain John Rogers is concerned about the new gun allowance in national parks. He regularly takes tours into Katmai, and believes if a person holds a gun he or she may be to quick to use it.
In Katmai National Park and Preserve, Denali National Park and other areas of the state, visitors bring cameras to shoot bears. This summer, they may bring something much more deadly.
On May 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 into law. Tacked onto that piece of legislation is an unrelated amendment that repeals a National Park Service rule prohibiting the possession of firearms in national parks and reverting regulation to individual states. As of Feb. 22, the effective date of the legislation, credit card holders no longer have to fear their interest rates will increase without warning, or that they’ll have to visit a national park without a gun for self-protection.
“I’ve never had any desire to visit Denali Park as a backpacker or a hiker because of that restriction,” said Bob Bird, of Nikiski, one of the organizers of a Second Amendment/Constitutional Task Force Rally scheduled for Thursday in Kenai. “I live in a rural area and I’m constantly watching my backside. I know the one time I don’t bring my gun I’m going see a bear. So if I’m thinking about going somewhere like Denali and I can’t protect myself, I just don’t go.”
Bears, however, may be well-advised to cultivate more fear of tourists packing heat, say tour and photo guides operating in Katmai National Park.
“I think it’s a recipe for trouble,” said John Rogers, owner of Katmai Coastal Bear Tours out of Homer. “A gun in somebody’s hand that, one, doesn’t understand guns very well but is wanting to carry one because they can. And, two, don’t understand bears very well. You’re in a park with lots of bears. It’s a recipe for a disaster for somebody — especially the bears.”
In Alaska, the reversal of the gun ban only affects five national parks — those established prior to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 — Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway, the Sitka National Historic Park and the old sections of Denali, Glacier Bay and Katmai national parks. The 10 national parks in Alaska established by ANILCA conformed to state law on the possession of firearms.
The distinction doesn’t owe to a debate regarding the safety or sense of allowing firearms for protection in parks, it was simply a matter of timing, said Chris Pergiel, regional chief ranger for the National Parks Service Alaska region.
“When ANILCA established newer parks in 1980, they had a different enabling legislation which took into account the Alaska circumstance that people typically hunted and carried firearms up here. It was just the timing of when those parks came into the system,” he said.
As a result, the gun ban reversal will have less of an overall impact in Alaska as in other states.
“Part of the intent was to make the laws more consistent throughout the National Park Service and understandable for the public, which is a little ironic because now we’re going to each individual state law,” Pergiel said. “There are parks in the country, like Yellowstone, that are located in three or four different states within one park. That may be confusing for people. Up here it will be pretty straightforward.”
Though the law liberalizes the possession of firearms for self-defense, it does not change the allowed use of firearms in national parks in the state. Prior restrictions on target practice and hunting still stand, and firearms are still not allowed in federal buildings or facilities, including national park offices or visitor centers.
Pergiel said it’s difficult to estimate how many Alaska park visitors may take advantage of the rule change.
“I think some folks will feel safer being able to possess firearms for protection from wildlife, and other folks may feel less safe knowing there are people out there with firearms. It’s hard to say,” he said. “We certainly encourage people not to put themselves in a situation where they need to use a firearm, but from time to time there are bear-human encounters.”
Whether to bring a firearm will be a case-by-case decision up to each visitor who’s eligible to possess firearms. If it were up to Pergiel, he said he recommends pepper spray as bear protection over firearms. He said he doesn’t anticipate the rule change to cause any problems.
“Hopefully not,” he said. “We’ve allowed the carry of firearms in national parks here in Alaska for going on 30 years now, for most of them, and we have not had a lot of significant problems.”
Bird said he is in favor of the rule change.
“I’m all in favor of your right to self-defense, whether it’s against a human being or a wild animal,” he said. “To say that you give up your right to self-defense just because you’re in a national park sounds a little silly.”
Some Katmai guides are not so sure the change is a good idea.
Rogers, for one, anticipates the rule change will cause problems, for the simple reason that allowing guns allows for the potential of them to be fired. He said he won’t allow clients to bring guns onto his vessels.
“I think if you’re sitting there with a loaded gun you’re far more likely to react unnecessarily than you are if don’t have a gun. If you don’t have a gun you learn how to deal with people and you learn how to deal with bears and you don’t put yourself in a predicament where you’re apt to shoot something,” he said.
Rogers has been running his tour business in Katmai for about 20 years now. From mid-June through mid-September clients fly out from Homer and stay in one of his vessels, the 70-foot R/V Waters or the 100-foot Kittiwake anchored along Shelikof Strait. For four days clients travel ashore by skiff and take guided photo expeditions along the intertidal zone of Katmai, led by former biologists, naturalists and other bear experts.
In all that time, Rogers said he’s never had a situation that needed to be solved by a gun.
“How many years has the park been there and we’ve only had one fatality that I know of — (Timothy) Treadwell. So why would somebody need to carry a gun in the park?” Rogers said. “That’s still not to say you don’t have the potential to get into trouble if you push bears or surprise bears. It’s not that you can’t get into trouble, but it would take some effort.”