Ruling two days after oral arguments closed, the Arizona District Court in Phoenix has ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to re-examine its decision to allow target shooting throughout Sonoran Desert National Monument. This national monument is a quiet oasis of saguaro cacti and native desert life just an hour southwest of 6 million people in the Phoenix area.
The court found that the BLM arbitrarily ignored its own study showing that target shooting could not be safely and appropriately conducted in the monument, given the patterns and volume of visitors to the monument and number and variety of historic and natural objects found across this biologically and archaeologically dynamic landscape.
“Irresponsible recreational target shooting presents a well-documented threat to ancient rock art—the petroglyphs people etched into stone and the pictographs they painted onto stone,” said Andy Laurenzi, field representative with Archaeology Southwest, a regional organization that studies archaeological resources and advocates for their protection. “Damage assessments of known rock art sites within the monument and just outside its boundaries all too often attest to vandalism resulting from recreational shooting. We applaud the court for requiring BLM to fully consider these resources when deciding what uses are appropriate within the monument.”
Beginning in 2002, the BLM began the comprehensive process of developing its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The agency conducted a study that concluded—except for one 84-acre site—that target shooting within the accessible areas of the national monument posed a danger to the safety of visitors and a danger to the cultural and natural resources. Accordingly, BLM’s original recommendation for the Draft RMP was to close the monument to target shooting.
But despite the clear findings of its own analysis, BLM arbitrarily reversed its decision at the last minute, even after issuing a Final EIS, and rewrote the EIS and the RMP to allow target shooting throughout the national monument, without restriction, notwithstanding the lack of protection for visitor safety and the resources of the monument. The new decision had no new analysis or findings that BLM would protect the monument resources from target shooting.
The case was filed by the plaintiffs as a result of the Record of Decision issued by the BLM in September of 2012 to allow shooting throughout the monument. In its decision issued Friday, the court found that allowing target shooting throughout the monument violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976—the federal law that governs the way in which the public lands are managed by the BLM—and the proclamation establishing the monument itself because the agency’s decision fails to protect the objects of the monument. The court also found that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act for its lack of analysis for its new decision.
“The initial analysis and decision by Arizona BLM staff was thorough and appropriate. Unfortunately, that was reversed at the eleventh hour by Washington,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona state director based in Tucson with The Wilderness Society. “We look forward to working with BLM and local stakeholders in an open public process to determine the best means of encouraging enjoyment by all visitors while also protecting what makes Sonoran Desert National Monument special.”
The BLM land surrounding the monument provides abundant opportunities for recreational target shooting. More than 78 percent of the nearby BLM land is open for recreational shooting. In addition, hunting and many other visitor pastimes like wildlife viewing, hiking and camping are allowed throughout the national monument.
“This is a win for the Sonoran Desert National Monument, the American public and the local Arizona officials who spent years carefully documenting and analyzing the impacts of target shooting there,” said Matthew Bishop, the Western Environmental Law Center attorney who represented the plaintiffs. “There are plenty of places in Arizona to target shoot without harming important resources and visitor safety.”
The decision disallows target shooting in the monument unless and until the BLM provides new analysis and reconsiders how it could allow for this use while also protecting the natural and cultural resources the monument was established to protect.
“The monument is highly prized by many who live in or near this rapidly growing part of Arizona for the natural quiet and thriving desert experience that can be found there,” said Scott Jones, executive director for the Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. “We’re pleased that the court relied on the agency’s own analysis that target shooting, while a valid form of recreation, is not an activity that can be maintained in this monument without significant harm to the vegetation, wildlife, and archaeological sites found abundantly throughout this part of the Sonoran Desert.” The Friends group was not a plaintiff in the case.
“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the BLM and with shooting enthusiasts to find and designate appropriate areas for recreational target shooting so that children, families, and others can safely visit the Sonoran Desert National Monument,” added Jones.
The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, TWS has led the effort to permanently protect 110 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.
Archaeology Southwest explores and protects the places of our past across the American Southwest and Mexican Northwest. They practice a holistic, conservation-based approach known as Preservation Archaeology.
The Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument serves as both an advocate and steward for the natural and cultural resources of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West.
Andy Laurenzi, Archaeology Southwest, (520) 882-6946, email@example.com
Mike Quigley, The Wilderness Society, (520) 334-8741, firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Jones, Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, (602) 570-0658, email@example.com
Matthew Bishop, Western Environmental Law Center, (406) 422-9866, firstname.lastname@example.org