It's one of the great Western pastimes: riding out after work or school to burn some ammunition on the unpeopled public lands. "Plinking" - shooting at whatever three-dimensional targets can be found, instead of the dull paper circles on a shooting range - has a visceral attraction that few shooters deny. Old cars and appliances are traditional favorites, but for many people, nothing is quite as satisfying as applying the might of a fast-shooting .223 to a wide-screen TV or a line of defunct Apple IIs.

The public lands are not nearly as unpeopled as they used to be, and shooters, along with the vast amounts of shot-up trash they leave behind, are coming under the gun of federal regulation. Most recently, Tonto National Forest in central Arizona banned recreational shooting on 81,000 acres of the "urban interface" near the burgeoning cities of Scottsdale, Mesa and Cave Creek, just outside Phoenix.

The Forest Service says the ban was long overdue; shooting advocates say their attempts to find a solution to the trash and safety problems were ignored by the federal land managers. Says Phoenix writer and gun-rights advocate Alan Korwin, "An autocratic, tyrannical decree is all it is."

Faster and farther

Since the mid-'60s, the greater Phoenix area has grown from around 500,000 people to a population of nearly 4 million. The Tonto National Forest logs almost 35 million visitors annually. "We deal with everything from gang activity to raves," says Tonto staffer Jim Payne.

The easy-access, close-to-town areas of the Tonto are popular for hiking, horseback riding, off-roading and dirt biking. A stretch of the Great Western Trail, a backcountry route designated for off-road enthusiasts, is found here. The shooters create an uneasy and potentially dangerous mix.

"I have never seen such a volume of irresponsible shooting as I have witnessed here," says Tonto supervisor Karl Siderits, a 30-year agency veteran and an active firearms enthusiast, shooter and off-roader. "I'm talking about 150 to 200 shooters on any given afternoon, shooting old washing machines, refrigerators, computers, you name it. Drinking beer and then shooting the cans. And when they're done, they just drive away."

The weapons of the plinkers and target shooters have changed in recent years. Gone are the relatively short-range .22s and 30/30s of the ranching and hunting culture. In their place are AK-47s and battle-quality .308s and .223s, weapons that have a lethal range of more than a thousand yards.

"We have people shooting at old propane tanks on a hill overlooking the town of Mesa," says Siderits, "no backstop at all." One group of shooters, he says, recently started a fire while shooting at bowling pins they'd placed among the rocks.

In 1998, the Forest Service became a member of the Shooting Sports Roundtable, an organization of federal land-management agencies, shooting-sports groups and trade associations. A memo from Forest Service Deputy Chief Robert Joslin, issued that year, confirms the agency's position that "safe recreational shooting is a valid use of public lands." But it is up to the regional foresters, like Karl Siderits, to determine which areas are "safe" and which are not. "Most of the restricted area is flat, where bullets can travel," says Siderits. "We are just trying to act responsibly here." He points out that hunting will not be affected by the restrictions, and that there are about 2.8 million acres of the Tonto where shooters are free to pursue their sport.

Unbridled freedom

At a Scottsdale gun store, the Armory, the atmosphere is calm. Armory co-owner Terry Shane says that he and his employees are trying to help shooters understand the reasons behind the ban and to direct them to safer areas that are open to shooting. "In general, people who just read in the newspaper about the closure are the most upset," he says. "Once we explain it - that these areas may be convenient, but dangerous, the trash is terrible, and there's so many other people out there - they usually agree that the ban was inevitable."

Usually, but not always. "We've got a big problem out there with the bad shooters," says NRA field representative Dean Hall, "no doubt about it. And this ban will work to address that." He pauses. "And then the problem will be pushed onto more remote and pristine areas, and they will use the same logic to shut those down. It won't stop until it's all under the ban."

Hall believes that the problems could be addressed now, on the traditional shooting areas of the Tonto, through law enforcement. "Why just let it get so bad that a ban is the only solution?" he asks. "I feel like there was never any other alternative considered." Hall worries that a dangerous precedent has been set, not just with the restriction, but in the attitude of land managers toward the shooting sports.

Many forest users are pleased with the new restrictions, judging from letters and editorials in local newspapers. But there is a big contingent of shooters that liked it just the way it was - trash, flying bullets and all. One prominent Phoenix shooter, who asked not to be named, sums it up this way: "I go out to these places, carpeted with spent brass (cartridges), a car door over here, a TV or a propane bottle over there, and what I see is unbridled freedom. Everybody who really likes to shoot knows what I'm talking about. Isn't there going to be anywhere in America where you can shoot your old computer?"

Hal Herring writes from Hamilton, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Tonto National Forest Public Information Officer Jim Payne, 602/225-5200;
  • NRA Field Representative Dean Hall, 480/948-7835.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Hal Herring