Recreational target shooting is now illegal at Ironwood Forest National Monument, following years of controversy about the practice.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management imposed the shooting ban on Monday in adopting its first-ever plan to manage the 13-year-old monument in the Avra Valley, northwest of Tucson.
The decision is a big victory for environmental groups. They have long said that the monument's proliferation of target shooters was causing severe damage to cacti, petroglyph-bearing rocks, trees and other resources that the federal government created the monument to protect.
But it's a major defeat for groups such as the National Rifle Association. The NRA has long been skeptical that target shooting is causing such problems and said that it's not fair to close an entire monument to shooters due to the activities of some.
The BLM decided on the ban after its studies concluded that shooters damaged national resources at more than 30 sites. It studied the possibility of setting aside one or two areas for shooting, but concluded they would suffer much more damage from concentrated shooting pressure, said Brian Bellew, BLM's Tucson field office manager.
At first, people caught target shooting in the monument will simply be talked to, in the name of public education, Bellew said. Citation of violators will start after BLM publishes supplemental rules and an enforcement schedule for the monument in the Federal Register, he said.
NRA: "Absurd Decision"
"It's completely preposterous that on 100,000 acres of a national monument in Arizona, that they claim there is no place suitable for recreational shooting there," said Todd Rathner, an NRA lobbyist and attorney in Tucson. "Obviously they bent to the will of extremists who have been putting pressure on them. It's an absurd decision.
"We're going to have to take a look at every avenue" possible to try to overturn it, Rathner said, including litigation and possible congressional action. Under BLM rules, the decision can't be appealed within the agency.
For many monument fans and nature lovers, the shooting ban "will move us light-years ahead of where we were," said Lahsha Brown, executive director of Friends of Ironwood Forest National Monument.
"I personally spoke to quite a number of people over last few years, who would go out there, hear shooting, and they were not sure if it was friendly fire or something to do with the (border-related) smuggling going on out there. A number of people told me they didn't go out there because they didn't feel safe," Brown said.
As recently as a year ago, BLM officials, ranchers, environmentalists and neighboring residents all agreed that the shooting of saguaros and other native plants was increasing. Reports of saguaros with tops sheared off and arms riddled with bullets have been frequent off and on over the years.
But Nelson Freeman, a deputy director for Tucson-based Safari Club International, which represents hunters, said he was dismayed because the action ignored recommendations from the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage and Conservation Council to continue allowing recreational shooting on all national forests and other public lands in Arizona.
2nd plan for ban pulled
The decision contrasts with the BLM's action on the much larger Sonoran Desert National Monument to the north of Ironwood. The bureau first proposed to ban target shooting there after getting complaints similar to those about Ironwood, then withdrew the proposal last May after the NRA and other shooting-rights groups complained.
Also in contrast to this action, NRA's Rathner cited the Coronado National Forest, which is considering an application from the Tucson Rod and Gun Club for a managed shooting range in Redington Pass just northeast of Tucson. The forest recently announced it would fence off three unsupervised, trashed-out shooting sites in the pass.
"That's the way that problems like this ought to be solved," Rathner said.
But in looking for possible shooting sites, BLM analyzed the 30 known shooting sites in Ironwood for issues such as cultural resources, wildlife, impact on views and plants and access. It narrowed the list to two sites, the bureau's Bellew said.
Then it found "the impact on those sites, the pressure that would be exerted on those sites, would be very dramatic," he said.
The shooting ban is the only major management change for the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument that is contained in the new management plan. The plan forbids motor vehicles from driving on 10,880 aces, but leaves open to them 124 miles of roadways. It provides 90 miles of trails open only to hikers, horseback riders and other non-motorized users.
"A number of people told me they didn't go out there because they didn't feel safe."
Lahsha Brown, Friends of Ironwood Forest National Monument
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.