Groups Challenge BLM Decision Allowing Shooting in Protected Sonoran Desert

Saguaro cacti at sunset in Saguaro Park National Monument.
Saguaro cacti at sunset in Saguaro Park National Monument.
In May, when Matthew Bishop visited Sonoran Desert National Monument to see the damage for himself, he was shocked.

Bullet holes punctured iconic saguaro cacti. Native American petroglyphs had been shot up and scarred.

“I just saw a small percentage of it,” Bishop, a lawyer for the Montana-based Western Environmental Law Center, told Phoenix New Times. “To be honest, I didn’t think it was that big a deal until I saw it in person.”

The damage Bishop witnessed came from recreational target shooting, which the federal Bureau of Land Management has allowed in the national monument since its establishment in 2001. The agency has done so despite analysis from its own experts saying that the 487,000-acre monument, which is about an hour southwest of Phoenix, is not appropriate for target practice

click to enlarge A shot-up saguaro cactus. - MATT BISHOP
A shot-up saguaro cactus.
Matt Bishop
Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club — represented by Bishop and his colleague Kelly Nokes — sued the BLM, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Department of the Interior, and Raymond Suazo, Arizona's BLM director.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, they asked a judge to ban target shooting inside the monument until the BLM does a proper review. They also alleged that the BLM violated several federal land laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, when it decided, for a second time, in March 2018 to allow recreational shooting in nearly 90 percent of the monument.

In the past, the BLM’s own analysis recommended that the entire monument be closed to recreational shooting, citing concerns about safety and the lack of protection for objects in the monument, the complaint pointed out.

Nevertheless, the agency has repeatedly allowed the opposite.

The first time the BLM formally decided to allow target shooting in the Sonoran Desert National Monument was in 2012, following an 11th-hour reversal prompted by the Department of Interior, the suit explained.

The Secretary of Interior’s office refused to approve of the BLM’s final management plan for the monument, “directing the BLM to reverse its decision on target shooting inside the Monument,” according to the lawsuit. “No explanation was given.”

That 2012 decision prompted the first lawsuit, filed in September 2013, against the BLM over its decision to allow recreational target shooting. Bishop was the lawyer in that case, too, representing the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Wilderness Society, and Archaeology Southwest, a Tucson-based conservation nonprofit.

In 2015, a judge ruled that the BLM’s decision had violated federal law as well as the proclamation that established the Sonoran Desert National Monument. He remanded the issue back to the BLM, telling it to reconsider its decision, but did not ban target shooting.

click to enlarge A starlit night at Sonoran Desert National Monument. - BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
A starlit night at Sonoran Desert National Monument.

After two more years of review, the BLM decided, again, to allow target shooting in 89 percent of the monument. It claimed that it had re-evaluated its previous decision to allow shooting, but the groups suing the agency argued otherwise.

The BLM "neglected to prepare a new analysis, collect new data, or collect new surveys,” last week's lawsuit stated.

It also pointed out that this latest decision has the fingerprints of the National Rifle Association all over it. In fact, the NRA itself has publicly taken credit for preventing the BLM from halting recreational shooting at the monument the second time around.

click to enlarge Even the welcome sign is used for target practice. - MATT BISHOP
Even the welcome sign is used for target practice.
Matt Bishop
Straight from the NRA: “Recreational shooting was almost barred from a huge, 496,400-acre swath of public land in Arizona," the Sonoran Desert National Monument, said an August 2018 post on its website.

After NRA lobbyist Susan Recce helped push for the BLM not to close off the national monument to target shooting, “the BLM backed down from the closure alternative,” the suit added.

Records show that in late 2017, Recce was in contact with Ben Cassidy, a former NRA lobbyist who joined the Department of Interior that fall.

Neither the NRA nor Recce responded to New Times' requests for comment for this story.

To Bishop and the conservation groups he represents, the fact that they are challenging the same BLM decision for a second time is ridiculous, especially when the agency’s own analysis said it should not allow target shooting in the monument.

“I’m surprised we’re here again,” Bishop said. “There’s a real disconnect between their own findings and studies and analysis, and the decision.”

“I think the BLM is ultimately making a political decision,” he added.

The land in question is not just any old BLM land, Michael Quigley, the Arizona state director for the Wilderness Society, pointed out.

The Sonoran Desert National Monument was designated as such because it is “a magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran desert landscape,” according to the proclamation.

Its wide valleys are home to saguaro cactuses, palo verde trees, prickly pear, and cholla cactus. Kofa Mountain barberry, Arizona rosewood, and juniper trees grow on the higher slopes of its mountains. The endangered Sonoran pronghorn, javelina, gray fox, bobcat, the Sonoran desert tortoise, and hundreds of other species live there.

The expanse is also filled with archaeological sites containing rock art and other historic artifacts. It is believed that the Hohokam and tribes in present-day Mexico used one of its washes, Vekol Wash, as a corridor for trade.

All of these species and objects, the proclamation declared, needed to be protected.

click to enlarge People like to bring out TVs and other old electronics for target practice, Bishop said. - MATT BISHOP
People like to bring out TVs and other old electronics for target practice, Bishop said.
Matt Bishop
But if you go to Sonoran Desert National Monument today, you’ll find areas stripped of plants and vegetation, shot-up TVs and litter scarred about, and shotgun casings left behind.

“There are other places where the agency has determined target shooting is not appropriate, and we wish they’d done that at Sonoran Desert National Monument,” Quigley said. “We’re back where we were before.”

He suggested that one reason the monument is so popular for target shooting is because of its proximity to Phoenix, which is part of what makes it dangerous to the people in its vicinity.

In January 2018, Kami Gilstrap died after a stray bullet struck her in the chest on federal land near Buckeye, in a popular target-shooting area about 20 miles north of the monument. Gilstrap was 24 and pregnant.

Mariela Castaneda, a spokesperson for the BLM in Phoenix, said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.