In August 1988, my wife and I stood on a road near Yellowstone Lake, directly opposite a young moose that stepped out of the undergrowth, apparently unperturbed by either my presence or my video camera. He only bolted back into the woods when a pair of very loud motorcycles came up the road.
In July 1990, as we paused at an overlook in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, a Clark’s nutcracker landed on a stone wall a few feet from us and hopped over to us in search of a handout.
In May 1995, we sat in our car in the middle of the road near Old Faithful Inn while a herd of bison, many accompanied by young calves, flowed calmly around us like a trout stream around a large rock.
In July 2009, as my brother and I moved our luggage into a cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs, a Uinta ground squirrel sat 5 feet from us on our porch, watching impassively. The following morning, as we returned from breakfast, a pair of yearling elk stood feeding beside the next-door cabin.
And on April 17 of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, which — as drafted — could allow a significant part of the National Park System to be opened to hunting and recreational shooting.
How many of those animals, do you suppose, would still be there — and still unafraid?
There are numerous designations — and a tremendous variety — in what constitutes a “national park unit.” Many of the grand parks — as regular visitors realize — are in the West. But even in Pennsylvania we have a disarming variety of sites, including Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, Gettysburg National Military Park, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area, and — one of the nation’s newest — the Flight 93 National Memorial.
And while the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act includes language that purports to exclude national parks and monuments from hunting and recreational shooting, and says nothing that requires the opening of those lands to hunting, it provides no guarantees. The lack of a genuine exclusion for national park system lands would allow a future secretary of the Interior to decide to open any national park or monument to hunting, as 70 of the units already are.
I can guarantee that such a move would result in enough of a ruckus that an impartial observer might conclude that it was open hunting season on the offending secretary of the Interior. But should we really have to keep revisiting issues like this that were clearly settled generations ago?
Is it really in the public interest to permit hunting in national parks like Yosemite, or along national scenic trails such as the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest? And do you want someone hunting along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan while you and your family are trying to have a picnic on the beach?
Now that the bill has moved over to the Senate, where its advocates are working aggressively to get it onto the Senate floor, it is essential that the bill’s language include a genuine exclusion for the entire National Park System that does not change current law. The House had the opportunity to do precisely that, simply by adopting an amendment offered by New Jersey Democrat U.S. Rep. Rush Holt. It was a simple, clarifying amendment that made clear that all units of the National Park System were exempted from the provisions of the bill. Mr. Holt’s amendment was rejected.
Included among those voting to reject it, by the way, was our own Republican Rep. Mike Kelly.
There are plenty of public lands, both federal and state, that provide appropriate opportunities for hunting and recreational shooting. No one is questioning those opportunities or seeking to restrict their accessibility.
But millions of Americans (and several million international visitors) love the experience of visiting our National Parks, and do annually. These are places to which we take our families to learn about the history of America, to hike, to get up close to wildlife that is unafraid, and to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors. For more than 100 years, there has been a broad, bipartisan consensus that they should be a sanctuary for both wildlife and humanity, where the use of firearms is prohibited. Even to think of opening them up to hunting and recreational shooting is patently absurd.
The bill that passed the House on April 17 needs either to be unequivocally amended by the Senate, or resoundingly defeated.
Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.