Inside the BLM's abrupt decision not to ban shooting in an Arizona national monument

Why guns, politics and saguaros don’t mix.

  • A BLM sign stating it is unlawful to leave shotgun shells behind is riddled with bullet holes in a wildcat shooting area in the Ironwood Forest National Monument. The BLM banned all recreational shooting in the monument in February.

    Rick Wiley/Arizona Daily Star
  • A protected saguaro cactus bears scars from gunfire in Sonoran Desert National Monument. Despite recommendations by local BLM staff that shooting be prohibited throughout the monument, officials decided not to enact a ban there after a one-day visit by the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, a federal committee that advises the departments of Interior and Agriculture.

    R. Scott Jones

In his five years at Arizona's Sonoran Desert National Monument, former manager Rich Hanson picked up a lot of trash. In just one cleanup, he and his staff gathered 12,000 pounds of bullet-riddled oil drums, fast-food garbage and computer monitors. "Slob shooters," as Hanson, who retired last spring, calls them, have also harmed the very resources he was sworn to protect – amputating saguaro limbs, shattering rock faces and splintering the trunks of palo verde, mesquite and other desert trees. Visitors to monument wilderness areas or the popular Anza National Historic Trail often pass unsightly roadside dumps.

It's a far cry from the "magnificent … untrammeled Sonoran desert landscape" President Clinton had in mind in 2001 when he designated a 487,000-acre national monument in the mountains, wide valleys and saguaro cactus forests southwest of Phoenix. Legal concerns made it impossible to set aside specific shooting areas, so, after much study, Hanson and his staff announced their intent to close the whole monument to shooting in a draft resource management plan released in August 2011.

But eight months later, after a one-day visit from Washington, D.C.-based hunting and shooting advocates, the upper echelons of the Bureau of Land Management abruptly reversed that decision, according to documents High Country News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

"This is not just turning a blind eye to someone else's science," says Wilderness Society attorney Phil Hanceford, who sued the BLM over the decision in September. "It's looking straight at their own science and completely disregarding their own recommendation."

Ray Suazo, director of BLM's Arizona office, explains that he didn't want to push the impacts of shooting elsewhere. "I'd love to be the place where we develop a model that works, where recreational shooters understand appropriate recreational shooting and it allows for other uses of the public land as well."

Land-management decisions are never free of politics, but what happened in Sonoran Desert National Monument appears to be an extreme example of the influence national-level special interest groups of all kinds can have on outcomes. Even Hanson was taken aback by the way local BLM staff recommendations were ignored. The decision, he believes, should have been made "more in the sunshine," rather than "outside the public comment process.

Suburban development lies behind much of the tension. With more people looking for places to fire guns, houses invading the desert, and dog walkers and joggers populating places shooters once had to themselves, Arizona land managers worry about safety and social conflicts, plus increased trash and vandalism. Drought has also increased the risk of shooting-caused wildfires. As a result, more managers are resorting to closures.

In 2001, the Forest Service closed 81,000 acres of the Tonto National Forest outside Phoenix to target shooting. Four years later, 71,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument, 40 miles north of Phoenix, proposed its own ban after archaeological sites were damaged. In 2007, the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument, 30 miles from Tucson, did the same after shooters toppled giant saguaros with bullets. (Those closures took effect in 2010 and 2013, respectively.) By the time Sonoran Desert floated its ban in 2011, the BLM was drafting national policy to identify low-risk shooting spots and close high-risk ones.

Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Dec 10, 2013 03:50 PM
As an avid outdoor user I have contributed many hours to helping the BLM clean up the numerous "poor man" shooting areas on BLM land adjacent to our community. With a crew of volunteers we can fill a 20 foot roll off container to over flowing in a morning only to return to fresh trash the very next day. In a month its hard to tell the cleanup ever occurred. I want to post signs stating "Either clean up your own trash or pay more taxes." I am a dirt bike rider and I team with the BLM in a hopeful effort to enable better decisions on land use. I know our local Rangers by face and by name and that encourages conversation. The NRA needs to reduce their focus on lobbying and get their constituents out in the field assisting to earn access to the land they bark so loud to maintain. A day of raking glass shards might bring about a better choice of target the next time they go out in the field.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 10, 2013 10:25 PM
For anyone interested here's a link to the findings of the council itself.
Sounds like they found easy solutions to the trash issues a local group willing to assist in a solution and ways to work with other user groups.
Emily Guerin
Emily Guerin Subscriber
Dec 11, 2013 10:20 AM
Peter, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Some of the BLM officials I spoke with also wished that shooters groups would not just fight for open access, but help clean up shooting areas and provide enforcement as well. Hopefully the new partnership in Sonoran Desert National Monument can be a model of that.
Dale Steele
Dale Steele
Dec 12, 2013 12:57 PM
Good article. I didn't see mention of the lead contamination issue associated with all this shooting. Given the ongoing struggles to recovery condors in Arizona and impacts to other wildlife, I suggest BLM make at least an intermediate step of requiring nonlead ammunition for all uses on these lands. Arizona Game and Fish have a good model on incentives for moving to nonlead ammunition that could be expanded in these areas whether or not condors use them now or may in the future. Now that new legislation has California expanding nonlead ammo requirements across the state the timing may be better for a move like this in Arizona too. Good luck.
Ricardo Small
Ricardo Small Subscriber
Dec 17, 2013 04:17 PM
The National Rifle Association and the group's lackey, Arizona's U.S. Senator Flake, are the political motivation behind the BLM caving on shooting in the Monument. It is criminal that the wealthy NRA cannot acquire land in the Tucson area for a public shooting range and support protecting a unique biological area. The NRA's politics of guns uber alles is THE reason we will continue to loose a beautiful collection of ironwood trees and giant saguaros. I resigned my NRA membership over this issue. Actually, the NRA's opposition to the BLM closing of the Ironwood to shooting, was the catalyst for my resignation. The NRA has become a crazy, short sighting cabal of extremists. Everyone who is still a member of the NRA should resign.
Lee Graves
Lee Graves
Dec 17, 2013 08:41 PM
I am an NRA member and fully support the efforts to clean up all the monuments. I myself shoot fairly regularly on BLM land, and I ALWAYS-- ALWAYS-- carry trash bags and clean up any mess I might make, as well as a lot of trash left by other outdoorsmen. They have been called "slob shooters" earlier and I must say I agree. I often talk to other shooters and ask them to clean up their messes but usually to no avail. I'd also like to comment that they are almost always young men. I think the trash left behind is a generational thing, since I'm older and most of the other older shooters I encounter do a pretty good job of cleaning up their shooting area.

Rather than closing the entire area to shooting, we need to find ways to educate these people about the need to clean up their messes. Texas has a good campaign-- "Don't mess with Texas." Maybe something similar coupled with some stiff fines would get their attention.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Dec 26, 2013 05:03 PM
As a hunter,I am outraged by people who have no respect for private or public property.
Clean up after shooting and shooting live vegetation,signs etc. should get you banned from hunting in that state and banned from certain public land for so long.
No excuses for stupidity.