WEST GLACIER – Last Monday, a new federal law was triggered, allowing visitors to carry loaded guns in national parks.
At about that same time, Phil Sellick’s phone started ringing.
“Some had complaints,” Sellick said. “Some had comments. Some just wanted information.”
Some, he said, wanted to know why they still wouldn’t be allowed to pack their guns into federal facilities, such as park headquarters. Some wanted to get special permits to hold Second Amendment rallies in the parks.
“It was a little bit of everything,” said Sellick, the chief of regulations and special park uses for the National Park Service. “People seem very interested in this change.”
The change, at first glance, seems simple enough.
Previously, national parks were no-gun zones. Now, state gun rules apply.
At Glacier National Park, spokesman Wade Muelhlof is pointing visitors to Montana law, “Title 45, Chapter 8, Section 3.” He doesn’t even have to check his notes, he’s rattled off the code so many times in the past week.
But when you get to Title 45, Chapter 8, Section 3, you find 61 separate law entries under the heading of “weapons.”
Things get even more complicated in Yellowstone National Park, which straddles three states. “If you want to bring a gun to Yellowstone,” Muelhlof said, “you’ll want to do some serious research into what each state allows and requires.”
More than 30 other national parks straddle state lines, and so now come with multiple jurisdictions.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a statement that “Montanans know best how to handle our guns – and following state law just makes sense.”
Critics, however, complain that the new law has created a complicated patchwork of rules, depending upon which national park – and which state – you’re in.
“It is,” said Bill Wade, “a sad chapter in the history of America’s premier heritage area system.”
Wade is a former park superintendent, and now chairs the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
“This law is a very bad idea,” he said. “It is not in the best interests of the visitors to national parks, the resources to be protected in national parks, nor the employees in national parks.”
He worries about opportunistic shooting at wildlife, and at petroglyphs, and he worries about the safety of both visitors and rangers.
John Waterman, president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, calls it an “ill-considered law,” and anticipates the moment when “an inexperienced visitor, who has not seen a bear or buffalo wandering through a campground, gets frightened and takes out the now-readily-available firearm and shoots blindly at an animal or a person.”
“Allowing untrained and unlicensed people carrying guns in national parks,” he said, “is an invitation to disaster,” threatening, he said, “the very nature of a family-friendly national park.”
Scot McElveen, who heads the Association of National Park Rangers, said law enforcement now will be hard-pressed when investigating poaching cases, adding that “we think it naïve to believe that purposeful poachers will not take every advantage of this change in the law.”
The National Rifle Association, which pushed hard for the changes, did not respond to requests for an interview, but backers such as Baucus have defended the change as a move that, in the senator’s words, “reaffirms our constitutional right to keep and bear arms; it’s as simple as that.”
He noted that Montanans like to hunt, and like to visit parks, and so “the decision is just plain common sense.”
But Muelhlof wants one thing made very clear – there will be no hunting in the national parks. In fact, although it might now be legal to carry a loaded gun, it’s still not legal to shoot it. Parks remain off-limits to hunting, he said, and recreational shooting is likewise prohibited.
The only justifiable shooting, Muelhlof said, “is if you believe your life is in imminent danger.”
In Glacier, where violent crime is essentially unheard of, most people think of grizzly bears when they think of imminent danger.
But records show that between 2005 and 2009 – when Glacier Park visitation totaled nearly 10 million people – only three visitors were injured by grizzlies. None was killed, and none used bear spray to counter the attack.
The Park Service, along with state and federal wildlife agencies, highly recommends the use of pepper spray rather than guns when faced with a bear, noting several studies proving the spray to be far more effective than a bullet in diverting or stopping a charging bear.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack.” The agency adds that a review of bear attacks shows injuries more frequent and more severe when a gun was used, than when spray was deployed.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks concurs, warning people that “if you are armed, use a firearm only as a last resort. Wounding a bear, even with a large-caliber gun, can put you in far greater danger.”
Muelhlof’s concerns, however, go well beyond the obvious dangers of guns to include the perceptions of visitors, many of whom arrive from other countries and are unaccustomed to an armed public.
“We’re expecting that some visitors will be pretty concerned,” he said, “when they meet people on the trail or in a backcountry camp wearing pistols on their hips.”
In the meantime, he and others in the Park Service are scrambling to take care of the practical details – new training topics for seasonal workers, new signs at trailheads. And not least of all, new definitions of what constitutes a federal facility.
Because while guns – rifles, handguns, concealed, not concealed – are now allowed in Glacier, they’re still not allowed in federal facilities.
An office at park headquarters surely is a federal facility, Muelhlof said, as is a park visitor center. The backcountry outhouse atop Boulder Pass is probably not.
But what about an auditorium, where rangers present evening programs?
“We’re still working on some of that,” Muelhlof said.
One thing the Park Service is not working on, though, is interpreting gun laws in 50 states. Instead, Sellick said each park’s Web site now has links to that state’s weapons regulations, “because states change their firearms’ laws all the time, and we don’t want to be in the position of trying to interpret all those various laws.”
Visitors, he said, will have to do that research themselves, to be sure their information is up to date.
“We provide the link,” Sellick said, “but the state law provides the information.”
In Montana, Muelhlof said, the general gist is “most everyone can carry a gun, and if you’re allowed to have a gun in Montana, you’re allowed to have it in the park.”
Glacier Park superintendent Chas Cartwright urged “every visitor who may wish to bring firearms to the park to do their research ahead of time, and ensure that they are aware of and abide by the laws that apply.”
Sellick said many of the people calling him these days want to complain about the Park Service change, when in fact the law was changed by Congress. It was passed as a brief rider, embedded deep in a credit card reform bill.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding about what happened here,” Sellick said. “This is a change in federal law, not a Park Service rule change. We’re only responding to what Congress decided.”
Just as are the rule’s critics.
“We remain astonished and disappointed by votes cast by many elected members of Congress to allow people to openly carry” guns in parks, said Bryan Faehner, of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Some critics, in fact, have vowed to push for a return to the Reagan-era rules that long banned loaded guns in parks.
In the meantime, the phones still are ringing at Sellick’s office, and at Muehlhof’s, too.
“We’re getting both sides,” Muelhlof said. “Some people are saying, ‘I’m not sure if I feel safe now, coming on my trip to Glacier,’ and some are saying, ‘Don’t restrict us by making every building a federal facility.’ It seems like everyone has an opinion on this one.”
The only opinion that matters, however, is the opinion of the Congress that made the change.
“Montanans are outdoors people,” Sen. Baucus said. “That means we hike, we fish and we hunt. It also means we spend a lot of time in our national parks. This decision is just plain common sense.”
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison @missoulian.com.