Environmental Damage Spurs Feds to Ban Target Shooting on More Arizona Land

The federal government is making shooting up the desert harder and harder to do.

The latest loss to Arizona target shooters is a portion of the Sonoran Desert National Monument just southwest of metro Phoenix. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, acting on a court order from March, this week banned shooting on about 11,000 acres of the federal monument.

While the closure affects about 2 percent of the 487,000-acre monument (see maps below), the area is one of the preserve's most popular and accessible shooting spots.

And it's an interim step toward a possible ban on shooting across the whole Monument — except by licensed hunters — in two years.

Vast areas of federal land remain open for free-range target shooting, a time-honored tradition of Arizona gun owners. Yet as more people move to Arizona and more spots become closed to shooting, options have dwindled for plinking outside a regulated range. Meanwhile, the remaining free-shooting areas are increasingly vulnerable to further environmental damage — and the likelihood of more closures in the future.

The latest loss comes as part of a lawsuit filed in 2013 against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The prohibition began with a controversial executive action by President Clinton, who with a stroke of his pen on January 17, 2001, three days before he left office, added new protections to the federal land by creating the monument. It's a gorgeous expanse of somewhat-pristine and lush Sonoran desert landscape, full of cacti, desert animals, Indian ruins, the historic Anza Trail, and other features worth preserving.

A year after Clinton's decision, researchers began evaluating recreational target shooting damage to the new monument, a place where shooting has occurred without much restriction since before statehood. The BLM asked for opinions about that issue for an environmental-impact statement and "received thousands of letters and comments," court records state.

In 2005, a report showed that shooting was occurring on about a fifth of the monument sites surveyed. Saguaro cacti had been shot up at nearly half of those heavily used shooting sites, and environmental damage was "extreme" on about a quarter of the sites. At half of the monument sites heavily used by humans, at least some evidence of target shooting was noted. 

A few years later, the BLM's draft environmental impact statement highlighted the perceived safety risks of target shooting, the "gradual degradation or destruction of natural resources," and the accumulation of "abandoned household refuse used as targets."

The final impact statement in 2012 recommended a total ban on plinking in the monument. It was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency for publication in the Federal Register. But before it was published, Obama Administration officials — having received "feedback from the National Rifle Association and local shooting enthusiasts" — ordered that the statement "must be changed to allow for recreational shooting," records state.

The shooting ban was removed, and the BLM's final impact statement and decision was published.

When no shooting prohibition came about because of the last-minute political maneuvering, three nonprofit agencies (the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wilderness Society, and Archaeology Southwest) filed their lawsuit in September 2013 against the BLM, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Raymond Suazo, the Arizona state director of the BLM.

In March, Arizona U.S. District Judge David Campbell ordered the BLM to reconsider its decision to allow shooting.

The environmental-impact statement and another federal report on the matter "are notable for their decision to allow shooting throughout the monument, particularly in light of the incongruous information that shows much damage from shooting," Campbell wrote in his March decision.

For instance, he wrote, the BLM's impact statement points out that continued shooting is likely to be harmful to desert tortoises:

"The desert tortoise excavates and inhabits burrows in rocky hillsides against which target shooters often place targets. Sustained target shooting may cause direct mortality to desert tortoise and indirectly impacts . . . tortoise habitat through loss of forage and cover due to damage or loss of vegetation, increased vulnerability to predation as predators are attracted to areas of trash and garbage, and ingestion of plastic and other trash."

The BLM's impact statement should have delved much more deeply into the tortoise situation and other potential damaging, and cumulative, effects from target shooting, Campbell wrote, adding that the agency's failure to do so was a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

While the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had asked for an injunction that would have declared 80 percent of the monument off limits to shooters, Campbell asked BLM officials how they intended to handle his order. The agency decided to ban shooting on 11,000 heavily used acres for now and begin a new review that's expected to come out with a final decision in December of 2017.

"We want our lands open to public shooting." — Noble Hathaway of the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association.

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Anything could happen at the end of the two-year process, which will involve shooting groups, area residents, government officials and others, says BLM spokesman Adam Eggers. The agency could decide to leave the whole 487,000 acres open for shooting, restrict shooting to certain areas, or implement a total ban on target shooting, he says.

Yet with pressure from the lawsuit plaintiffs and the consistent findings of environmental damage from shooting, nobody should be surprised if the decision is for a total ban like the one the BLM began enforcing in 2013 on the 100,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson.

Recreational shooters in the West Valley will be constrained at least somewhat by the 11,000-acre ban. They'll have to drive farther into the Sonoran monument and find new hills to use as backstops. No doubt, the BLM's fresh environmental review will scrutinize the activity of target shooters throughout the monument over the next two years.

Noble Hathaway, president of the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, which represents the NRA in Arizona, tells New Times that gun owners need to take an increasingly responsible land-stewardship role. The Prescott resident is working with the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the nonprofit group Tread Lightly to create a new "shooters-awareness" program.

"We promote competition and Second Amendment rights," Hathaway says. "We want our lands open to public shooting."

The ASRPA wants shooters to practice good safety and cleanup habits — to pick up not only after their own messes but also the messes that the "loony-toons" shooters leave behind, he says. Last week while shooting in a remote area of Yavapai County with a family member, he says. "We picked up 250 shotgun shells."

A few years ago, Hathaway says, government officials closed areas near Flagstaff to target shooting after noticing an accumulation of shot-up trash including refrigerators and other appliances.

"The Forest Service came out and closed it off instead of working with people," Hathaway complains. "I do not want that to happen again. If they close those public lands, I want them to have a good reason."

While state law allows people shoot in unincorporated areas as long as no residences are within a quarter-mile, target shooting is prohibited on state-owned land. That leaves mostly federal lands for plinkers — and the days of unfettered shooting seem numbered.

In the western Tonto National Forest, which is next to the East Valley, about 80,000 acres of heavily damaged land was made unavailable to target shooters in 2001. This caused people to begin shooting in other spots just outside the closed zones. Forest officials now close the Tonto entirely to shooting for two months of the year because of fire risk. In 2009, officials said target shooting was the suspected cause of at least 31 fires in Tonto since 2009.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern