The NRA is using national parks to advance its extreme agenda

The National Rifle Association is becoming increasingly cozy with Trump's Interior Department.

President Trump addresses the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum, April 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Stewart
President Trump addresses the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum, April 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Stewart

In May, the Trump administration announced without much fanfare that Susan LaPierre had been appointed to the board of directors for the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the National Park Service. While LaPierre’s biography on the foundation’s website calls her an “accomplished fundraiser,” it fails to directly mention perhaps the most notable details: she is the wife of National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and co-chair of the NRA Women’s Leadership Forum.

LaPierre’s appointment, along with other recent pro-gun actions taken by the Department of the Interior, indicate that the NRA has found a new avenue to pursue some of its key policy objectives under an administration more than happy to oblige.

With longtime NRA supporter Ryan Zinke at the helm of the Interior Department, the group may be using the agency, and specifically the National Park Service, to tie gun ownership to conservation and the outdoors and, in the process, to close loopholes and sell more guns.

The NRA’s close relationship with Trump’s Interior Department isn’t all that surprising; the organization gave $30 million to Trump’s presidential campaign and worked hard to get Zinke, a lifetime member of the NRA, confirmed as secretary. During then-Representative Zinke’s confirmation process, Chris Cox, one of NRA’s top lobbyists, penned an op-ed urging readers to tell their senators to vote to confirm Zinke.

“On behalf of our 5 million members, the National Rifle Association congratulates Secretary Ryan Zinke on his confirmation as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior,” said Cox in a statement following Zinke’s confirmation. “The confirmation of an avid outdoorsman to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior marks the end of a hostile era towards hunters and sportsmen.”

Their support was quickly rewarded. On Zinke’s first day at the helm of the Interior Department, Cox stood next to him as Zinke signed a secretarial order to overturn a ban on hunting with lead ammunition in national parks and wildlife refuges — an NRA priority.

The group contends that lead-free bullets are more expensive and difficult to obtain, a fact researchers have found to be untrue. In reality, lead poisoning from ammunition and tackle kills up to 20 million birds and other animals each year, according to The American Bird Conservancy, and is one of the primary reasons the California condor is still on the endangered species list. It can also be dangerous to hunters and other people who consume animals killed with lead bullets.

Nonetheless, the NRA has long sought to contradict the science regarding the environmental and public health risks of lead bullets, and cheered Zinke’s decision.

The new Interior secretary appears to have an open-door policy with the NRA. His schedules show that in his first three months in office, Zinke hosted Wayne LaPierre and Cox for two private meetings. Zinke also traveled to Atlanta, Georgia — with President Donald Trump — to speak at the NRA’s annual leadership forum.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” Zinke told the audience at the end of his speech. “Thank you for being there when we needed it. Thank you for everything that you will do, because I know with this group, guns and freedom matter. God bless you. And God bless the NRA.”

The NRA also has its eye on opportunities to advance its pro-gun objectives through Congressional action, specifically the so-called sportsmen’s package. The most recent version, formally known as the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act,” was introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and includes a number of NRA-supported provisions.

For instance, the bill would severely limit the National Park Service’s ability to manage commercial and recreational hunting and fishing within park boundaries. According to a leaked memo obtained by obtained by McClatchy, National Park Service acting director Michael Reynolds raised several concerns about the bill, including one provision that would prevent NPS from regulating hunting in Alaska wildlife preserves.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands and waters dedicated to wildlife conservation. The provision Reynolds took issue with would reverse a ban on inhumane standards, including shooting bear cubs in their dens and baiting bears and wolves with things like grease-soaked bread or pet food. The NRA supported this reversal, calling the rule an “attack on outdoorsmen” and arguing that the rule preempts state management on wildlife refuges.

Zinke’s Interior Department, the agency that oversees NPS, quashed Reynolds’ objections. Casey Hammond, a Trump political appointee, appears to have simply crossed out comments made by Reynolds in the leaked memo. NPS officials were also told not to voice their concerns to Congress, according to McClatchy.

Spokespeople for both the Interior Department and National Park Service denied the claims.

Another of the more egregious provisions the NRA has backed in the sportsmen bill is the so-called “Hearing Protection Act,” which would drastically weaken regulatory oversight of silencers, a dangerous accessory that makes it more difficult to recognize the sound of gunfire and identify its location.

The NRA’s sophisticated marketing machine has branded this legislation as a measure designed to protect the hearing of hunters and recreational shooters; however, law enforcement officials have defended the need for robust oversight of the accessory, and expressed concerns that deregulating silencers will likely increase their use in violent crime and create a public safety risk.

In addition to publishing several blog posts that paint silencers as a more reasonable solution to noise damage than ear plugs or earmuffs, the NRA has also recruited Donald Trump Jr., President Trump’s son and known sportsman, to promote the lifting of regulations on silencers.

Time and again the NRA has demonstrated a cunning ability to eliminate regulations, preserve loopholes, and sell more guns. Now it seems the organization has found the Department of the Interior and the political appointees charged with overseeing America’s national parks as willing participants in advancing its agenda.

This is not the group’s first attempt to influence a friendly administration to score victories in the public lands space. At the very end of the George W. Bush administration, the NRA successfully pressured the administration to re-open regulations governing firearms in national parks and national wildlife refuges.

Late last week, as reports came to light that hunters and sportsmen have become disillusioned with Zinke, the NRA weighed in on the more public Interior battle against national monuments. Cox penned another op-ed in praise of Zinke, this time commending the secretary’s review of 27 national monuments as “critically important to America’s sportsmen.”

However, a large number of sportsmen groups including Back Country Hunters and Anglers, the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and National Wildlife Federation have criticized the review, and the potential reduction of several national monuments, for the threat it poses to hunting and fishing opportunities.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.