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Opposing A National Park? What?

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National-ParkNational parks in the United States are being held hostage by an armed gang–the National Rifle Association. If the NRA has its way, there will never be another national park until we give up a century-old ban on hunting in our most popular wild areas, an idea supported by some nature enthusiasts. With twice as many armed members as the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines combined, the NRA has made itself the principal roadblock to the proposed Mojave National Park in the Southern California desert, which the Sierra Club has fought to establish for the past eight years. The result is a clash of the titans of grassroots organizing: the gun lobby versus the environmental movement.

The collision will take place in the halls of Congress when the comprehensive California Desert Protection Bill comes up for debate. Even though California senators Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D), the Clinton administration, and three out of four Californians are all firmly behind the bill’s provisions– designation of three new national parks and permanent protection of 4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness–the NRA wants the Mojave downgraded to a “preserve” where hunting could continue. And while the NRA’s vaunted capacity to punish its foes politically is now greatly reduced, many in Congress still think twice before crossing the 800-pound gorilla of U.S. politics.

Since the Desert Bill’s introduction in 1986, opposition has come mostly from the mining industry, welfare ranchers, the BLM, and off-road-vehicle yahoos. The gun buffs did not come out shooting until 1991, when then-Representative Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.) introduced an NRA-inspired amendment that would have allowed hunting in what is now the East Mojave National Scenic Area once it became Mojave National Park. Marlenee’s amendment passed the House, but the bill stalled in the Senate and went no further that year.

While the NRA is a Dirty Harry-come-lately to the desert issue, it has had an abiding interest in opening the national parks to hunting. In 1986 it went to federal district court to try to force the National Park Service to permit hunting and trapping in national monuments and parks where not specifically prohibited by Congress. The court ruled the opposite: that hunting and trapping are prohibited unless Congress specifically allows them.

The NRA badly needs a winning issue. It has recently suffered a string of legislative defeats, including last year’s signing of the Brady Bill and passage in the Senate of Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban. Consequently, the lobby has fixed its sights on the fears (and wallets) of hunters, declaring the Desert Bill part of”the greatest anti-hunting movement in recorded history” and making “no net loss of hunting opportunities” a centerpiece of its fundraising drives.

“They’re already winning,” the NRA warns its 3.2 million members. “They banned California mountain lion hunting. Blocked Montana’s grizzly season. Attacked Colorado’s spring bear season. Plotted bans on public lands bigger than Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined.”

The latter reference is to the East Mojave, which the NRA insists on calling “prime hunting territory.” The truth, however, is that despite the desert’s manifold natural wonders, it is an exceedingly poor place to hunt. “It’s the pits,” says Elden Hughes, a Sierra Club desert activist–and an active hunter. “Over the years hunters have taken an average of 25 deer and 5 bighorn sheep a year from that area. It’s clearly marginal; you lose more hunting opportunity from building one rural road in Northern California than there is in the whole Mojave Desert.”

“The East Mojave merits national-park status,” says Sierra Club desert lobbyist Marty Hayden. “If we deny it because of hunting, you can write off any new national parks that have better hunting than the Mojave, because that’s just about anywhere else.”

In fact, about all the East Mojave has going for it game-wise are quail and rabbits–both of which are available for hunting in far greater profusion on the 10 million acres of federal public lands that would lie outside the park boundaries. The scarce mule deer are exotics imported from Arizona by the California Department of Fish and Game after the last antelope was killed in 1943. They have obviously not thrived: of the approximately 30,000 deer California hunters kill each year, less than one-tenth of one percent come from the East Mojave.

Bighorn sheep are even less likely targets. Nearly eradicated by overhunting and livestock diseases, bighorn were protected for more than a century, until 1987. Since then a limited number of tags have been available by lottery, bringing about $20,000 a year to fund CF&G’s sheep-conservation efforts. For those too rich to trust to luck, one tag a year is auctioned off; this year’s went for $110,000.

Those fees create an odd alliance between sheep-studiers and sheep-killers. According to John Wehausen, head of bighorn research for CF&G, “When you have no hunting program, the reality of modern politics is that you have no conservation program.”

But hunting fees furnish only a third of California’s bighorn research budget, the rest coming from the sale of vanity license plates (whose number includes GUNLVR, NRA4EVR, and NOSHEEP). A Mojave National Park might even increase sheep-hunting possibilities, as animals from its fecund Old Dad/Kelso herd are exported for repopulation efforts elsewhere. Already, 222 head have gone forth to multiply in other traditional ranges.

It does not take a sheep scientist, however, to figure out why hunting is an inappropriate activity in a national park. Many people, especially families with children, are understandably nervous about sharing a park with hunters; allowing hunting in the Mojave would effectively exclude a large segment of park users. As is, many casual desert hikers have had the off-putting experience of hitting the ground to avoid gunfire from parked or moving vehicles. Joshua trees and ancient petroglyphs are already regular targets, while as many as 30 percent of desert tortoises found dead on BLM land have bullet holes in them. The policy of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, says natural-science curator Jim Cornett, is “not even to consider doing research outside the state and national parks unless we have to,” for fear of being perforated by some weekend cowboy.

The NRA’s famous pit-bull tactics may succeed for the moment in scaring donations from hunters, but the organization is barking up the wrong demographic tree as the popularity of blood sports continues to decline. The number of hunters in California has fallen 30 percent over the last decade, with only 1.3 percent of the population still holding hunting licenses. By contrast, 6.5 million Californians, or 29 percent of the state’s population over the age of 16, observe, feed, or photograph wildlife. A Field Institute poll last year showed that 84 percent of Californians oppose hunting on newly designated national-park lands, and 75 percent favor park status for the East Mojave knowing that hunting will be forbidden–as do two-thirds of respondents with hunters in the family.

“The issue here is national parks, not hunting,” says lobbyist Hayden. “The Sierra Club is not opposed to hunting–in its place. And a national park is not the place.”

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