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

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Though the vast majority of BLM land is still open to shooting – 87 percent of the agency's monuments and 95 percent of its total lands, nationwide – the National Rifle Association and shooting activists were up in arms. "It started becoming alarming," says Susan Recce, the NRA's director of conservation, wildlife and natural resources. Instead of working with shooters to "keep areas open and finding solutions to problems, we were finding that the reverse was happening. Huge areas of land were being closed."

Public outcry prompted the BLM to abandon its national policy, but the agency stuck with its proposed ban for Sonoran Desert National Monument, even though Fox News and gun-rights bloggers objected, and officials received about twice as many comments protesting the closure as supporting it. On  April 9, 2012, according to internal emails, the next version of the plan was headed to the printer, and the agency's state office warned employees the ban could be controversial. The next day, the Wildlife and Hunting and Heritage Conservation Council, a federal committee that advises the departments of Interior and Agriculture, toured the monument.

The council's members, from various hunting, fishing, shooting and sportsmen's groups, first discussed the ban that February. After their tour, council head John Tomke, a former board chairman of Ducks Unlimited, dismissed the shooting's impact as "not significant. There were areas (with) some trash, but it didn't look related to recreational shooting." Hanson, who showed the group around, disagrees. "The sites we looked at I thought were pretty horrible. So I guess it's a matter of perception."

In an April 27 letter, the council asked then-BLM head Bob Abbey to reconsider the closure, calling it "an unwarranted action against a single user group." The agency quickly backtracked, brainstorming tweaks to justify allowing shooting, a task then-BLM resource planner Chris Horyza found challenging since the agency's monument management plan had already thoroughly supported its argument against shooting.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Wilderness Society and Sierra Club accused the agency of caving to political pressure. Even the NRA hadn't insisted on keeping the entire monument open to shooting, instead urging the agency to identify and manage popular areas. Democratic U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and James Moran of Virginia wrote to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the decision "establishes a troubling standard for natural and cultural resource management decisions across the (National Landscape Conservation System)," of which the Sonoran Desert National Monument is a part. Salazar's succinct reply was that the BLM would continue to "work at the local level … to protect monument resources while keeping portions of the SDNM open" to shooting. BLM staffers in Arizona have since partnered with Tread Lightly!, a group that works with shooters, hunters and off-road vehicle-riders to encourage responsible shooting.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to how protective BLM national monuments should be. National Landscape Conservation System assistant director Carl Rountree says they fall somewhere between wilderness  and plain old public lands. "There are more uses we allow, but only if they are not going to impact the (monument's) objects, or the value of these places." For him, shooting in Sonoran Desert has "not yet crossed that line."

But the agency still struggles with that balance, says The Wilderness Society's Hanceford. "(Sonoran Desert) is one of their first monument land-use plans, so they're still learning what it means to manage for conservation of cultural and natural resources as the priority." Hanson, meanwhile, hopes the BLM's latest efforts pan out. It would help, though, if the monument had more than three full-time staffers, he says. "Resource damage should be zero."

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