Family in tow for a tour of national treasures far from Washington, President Barack Obama is trailed by criticism from gun opponents and parks advocates for allowing firearms into such majestic places as this.
"There is still time for Congress and the president to take steps to keep loaded firearms away from the valleys of Yellowstone, the cliffs of Yosemite, and the Statue of Liberty — but they need to act quickly," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
A bill that Obama signed in May permits licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges as long as state law allows it. The new law, which takes effect in February, will replace rules from the Reagan administration that generally require that guns in national parks be locked or stored in a glove compartment or trunk.
"If they wanted to fight that, they could have," said Jonathan Dorn, editorial director of NationalParkTrips.com and editor-in-chief of Backpacker magazine. "That one just felt like a very political decision that was maybe more about politics than about maybe paying attention to the preferences of the vast majority of people who are frequent park users."
Still, Dorn called the law "one hiccup" in an otherwise supportive parks agenda so far by the Obama administration.
The Democratic-controlled Congress passed the less restrictive measure with bipartisan support after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., inserted it into Obama-backed legislation imposing new restrictions on credit card companies. Democratic leaders decided not to challenge Coburn, and Obama signed the gun measure without comment.
Politically, the move thrilled gun-rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association and outdoorsmen. They generally lean conservative, which may help Obama's soft standing with centrists and independents. But it certainly didn't set well with some of Obama's core Democratic constituencies, environmentalists and gun-control backers.
The Obama family — the president, the first lady and daughters Malia and Sasha, and other relatives — had a busy sightseeing weekend planned: visiting Yellowstone National Park on Saturday and touring Grand Canyon National Park on Sunday.
"Oh, that's pretty good. Cool! Look at that. That's a geyser there," a casually dressed Obama said as he and his family watching Old Faithful erupt after they strolled up a path with park rangers.
Earlier, his entourage walked wooden boardwalks and bridges in the steamy Black Sand Basin, where hot springs and small geysers dot the picturesque landscape.
Their stops come during one of three summer weekends when the administration waived entrance fees at 147 national parks and monuments to spur tourism and boost local economies.
Less than a year in office, Obama doesn't have much of a record when it comes to the national park system. Nonetheless, parks advocates say the administration has indicated it wants to spend more on parks and expand the parks system.
At this point, "it's more rhetoric than it is decisions" but "we believe there's a pretty bold and ambitious agenda brewing for national parks in this administration," said Ron Tipton, the National Parks Conservation Association's senior vice president of policy. "We're seeing the interest right out of the box, and we're seeing it exemplified by a president who takes his family to a national park in his first year in office. That's very unusual."
Dorn, likewise, applauded Obama for "making a pretty significant statement this early in his administration at a time when he's got some pretty heavy things on his shoulders."
From the outset of his presidency, Obama signaled his would be an administration sympathetic to the parks. He signed legislation that set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness. That was one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in a quarter-century. Supporters said the law would strengthen the national parks system; opponents called it a "land grab."
Since then, the administration has have taken several other steps that have encouraged parks advocates:
—Proposed cutting the number of snowmobiles allowed daily into Yellowstone in the winter to 318 and requiring guided tours. It proposed a similar policy at other national parks. Wyoming has asked a federal judge to force Yellowstone to allow up to 740 snowmobiles a day.
—Halted the filing of new mining claims on nearly 1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land near the Grand Canyon for two years while the administration studies whether uranium mining there should be permanently prohibited. It also has pledged to overhaul a 137-year-old hardrock mining law that favors the mining industry.
—Devoted $750 million in economic stimulus money to address a maintenance backlog in parks and increased the operations budget request to Congress for parks by $100 million.
—Picked Jon Jarvis, a biologist and 30-year-veteran who oversees the national parks across the West, to head the National Parks Service.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.