By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
The Obama administration is legally defending a last-minute rule enacted by President George W. Bush that allows concealed firearms in national parks, even as it is internally reviewing whether the measure meets environmental muster.
In a response Friday to a lawsuit by gun-control and environmental groups, the Justice Department sought to block a preliminary injunction of the controversial rule. The regulation, which took effect Jan. 9, allows visitors to bring concealed, loaded guns into national parks and wildlife refuges; for more than two decades they were allowed in such areas only if they were unloaded or stored and dismantled.
The three groups seeking to overturn the rule -- the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees -- have argued that the Bush administration violated several laws in issuing the rule, such as failing to conduct an adequate environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. They also argue that the new policy could deter some visitors, such as school groups, from visiting national landmarks.
In its reply, the Justice Department wrote that the new rule "does not alter the environmental status quo, and will not have any significant impacts on public health and safety."
But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has asked for an internal assessment of whether the measure has any environmental impacts the government needs to take into account, Interior spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said yesterday.
"Secretary Salazar believes the Department should put forward its legal arguments in defense of the rulemaking procedure, and allow the courts to reach a conclusion," Lee-Ashley wrote in an e-mail. "In addition, in order to ensure that the actions of the government are based upon the best information, Secretary Salazar has directed the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, under the auspices of the Office of Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to undertake a 90-day review of any environmental considerations associated with implementation of these rules and to provide him a report on the results of that review."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, said in an interview that he did not understand why the new administration was defending a rule that embodied "bad policy and bad procedure."
"It is hard to tell who is calling the shots on this at this point," Helmke said. "You're raising the level of risk in the parks, and the chance that people will use the parks less than they have in the past."
Gun rights groups had lobbied hard for the rule change under Bush. When the administration issued the regulation in December, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, said the shift in policy "brings clarity and uniformity for law-abiding gun owners visiting our national parks. We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges."
Bush's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Lyle Laverty, pushed for the policy change, according to documents disclosed as part of the ongoing case in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In an Aug. 22 letter to the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, he wrote, "This proposed rule is one of my top priorities."
But Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall and National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar, both Bush appointees, informed Congress shortly before the rule was finalized that they opposed allowing concealed weapons in refuges and parks. "After careful review of our records and actions, we believe that the existing regulations provide necessary and consistent enforcement parameters throughout the National Park System," Hall and Bomar wrote House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) in a Nov. 9 letter.
The national park system has a relatively low rate for crimes or for attacks by wild animals. In a July 31 letter that Bomar wrote to a Reno resident inquiring about the new rule -- which was unearthed during the proceedings -- she stated that in 2006 there were more than 270 million visits to the national park system and 384 violent crimes. In the course of more than 1.3 billion visits to the system since 2002, she added, there have been two reported fatalities and 16 serious injuries caused by "encounters with non-domestic animals."