After heavy protests from gun-rights' groups, the federal government is dropping a proposed ban on target shooting at the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

The decision to continue allowing such shooting at the 487,000-acre monument northeast of Gila Bend has spurred hope in a National Rifle Association activist and concern among some environmentalists that the feds could also back off on a similar proposal for Ironwood National Monument closer to Tucson.

Both monuments have been besieged by gunshot damage to saguaros and other native plants, federal reports say, although some gun-rights advocates say the case that target shooters caused the damage hasn't been made.

Brian Bellew, a Bureau of Land Management official in Tucson, was noncommittal Monday about Ironwood's proposed ban. Its fate should be known by late summer, when the BLM is expected to issue a final Ironwood-management plan.

The BLM said Monday in a written statement, "Keeping the (Sonoran) monument open to recreational target shooting will allow responsible sportsmen to continue enjoying this recreational opportunity in an appropriate manner."

The decision came in sharp contrast to the BLM's draft environmental impact report in August that said only two sites totaling 191 acres in Sonoran Desert Monument may be suitable for target shooting, while 80 percent of the monument is unsuitable due to damage to protected plants, debris accumulation and safety of other visitors.

"It's excellent. I'm thrilled," said Todd Rathner, a Tucson-based NRA lobbyist. "Anywhere there is a perceived conflict between recreational shooting and other uses of public land, we should work out some way to accommodate all uses of public land."

He said it's possible the Obama administration got a "very strong message" from the House's recent passage of a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that limits BLM shooting bans in national monuments to six months.

Environmentalists denounced the BLM's decision as an election-year cave-in to the gun lobby. "When the BLM finally does some conservation, this shows they are willing to backtrack for political reasons," said Greta Anderson, Arizona director of the Western Watersheds Project. "These decisions should be based on science and should be transparent."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at or 806-7746.