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.
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."
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9, 2013 issue of High Country News.