Unless Arizona officials change their minds, a visit to Walnut Canyon National Monument soon could be against the backdrop of rapid-fire gunfire courtesy of a shooting range the state intends to build near the monument.
"They claim that they’ll be able to muffle some of the sounds, but hundreds of rounds of staccato muffled gunfire in Walnut Canyon probably is not appropriate," says David Nimkin, who oversees the National Parks Conservation Association's Southwest regional office.
The shooting range, complete with archery course, clay pigeon area, trap and skeet fields, 30-spot RV park, hunter education trail, rifle range, and classroom space, has been long in coming. For 15-20 years the Arizona Game and Fish Department has been looking for a location in the northern area of the state, preferably one within 30 minutes of downtown Flagstaff.
About 18 months ago the commission found the 160-acre Foster Ranch, a private tract surrounded by national forest land, and purchased it for the range. (To see a locator map of the proposed range and its proximity to the national monument, click here to open a pdf.) A final proposed masterplan for the facility is expected to be presented to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission next month. A draft of the plan is attached below.
Since that site was identified for the shooting range, it has drawn opposition for its location near the national monument from the National Park Service, the Hopi Tribe, Friends of Walnut Canyon, and the NPCA. Additionally, the Flagstaff City Council recently voted against the location.
The range is to be built about 1 mile southeast of the monument, which preserves 800-year-old cliff dwellings tucked beneath limestone ledges and nearly 500 identified archaeological sites. Along with providing hunters a place for target practice, the range is expected to be utilized by law-enforcement agencies and the general public, according to a website maintained by the Game and Fish Department.
Sound testing conducted last summer demonstrated that gunfire from the site could be heard 3 miles away at the monument's Visitor Center.
On Wednesday the monument's superintendent, Diane Chung, said that in addition to the sounds of gunfire that the range could produce, she recently learned that it would feature "a high-powered rifle range pointed right at us.”
"I only found out (about that aspect) two weeks ago," she said during a phone call. "I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people. An 800-yard long-distance rifle range. Those guns can shoot a mile, so 800 yards isn’t long enough.”
In their letter to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, Hopi officials said the shooting range would interfere with tribal ceremonies at Walnut Canyon.
"Hopi traditional practitioners regularly provide offerings and prayers at Walnut Canyon, and the sound of gunshots is incompatible with the natural sounds, including the wind and water required for our prayers," noted Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, who oversees the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, in the letter sent in late November. "We also do not think it is appropriate for gunshot noise to be audible for monument visitors at the Visitor's Center, rim trail, or anywhere within the monument. Furthermore, we understand there are threatened and sensitive species in the area, including Mexican Spotted Owls, Northern Goshawk, and other birds that would be disturbed by the activity associated with a shooting range."
When it presented formal comments to the Game and Fish Department last year, the Park Service said gunfire from the range would be at odds with the mission of the monument. In the comments Superintendent Chung pointed out that sound tests conducted at the site last summer proved gunfire would be heard by visitors to the monument.
"The mission of the National Park Service is to provide a visitor experience without modern impacts and intrusions. These preliminary observations by staff revealed there is a high probability of noise impacts at the Walnut Canyon Visitor Center and ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings," Superintendent Chung wrote. "This unfortunately conflicts with the purposes for which the monument was established. We would also be concerned about increased traffic to and from the range, noise issues related to traffic and an upgrade of the current road, and how that might affect both visitor experience and resources issues in and around the monument."
Ironically, Mr. Nimkin pointed out to that in 2002 when the Park Service was thinking of improving a road at the monument the Game and Fish Department objected because of noise associated with the project.
"In the comment period the state Game and Fish objected and said -- and this is just right over the area where the shooting range is located -- said that they would feel that the presence of equipment to build the road, increased visitation, would affect all the wildlife in the area," he said. "And ... eight years later, they feel a shooting range is appropriate.”
Superintendent Chung raised the same point in January, when she presented testimony to the Game and Fish Commission.
"We find it disturbing that while the department discouraged NPS road development along the eastern canyon, it is disregarding its own advice and plans to improve FR 128 just half a mile on the other side of the canyon to bring significantly more vehicle use into the same area," she told the commissioners.
Other issues raised by Superintendent Chung include:
* Increased noise disturbance to wildlife at the Cherry Canyon Pools, the only natural perennial surface waters within the monument; approximately one mile from the Foster Ranch.
* Disruption of wildlife movement within the Cherry Canyon-Anderson Mesa corridor (The NPS advocates protecting this movement corridor in participation with the Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup). Key species of concern include black bear and overwintering bald eagles.
* A small number of American pronghorn may be stranded within the Cosnino Pasture-Campbell Mesa area north of Walnut Canyon – there may be a potential movement corridor between northeast end of Walnut Canyon and east side of Anderson Mesa, but this has not been assessed.
* Noise disturbance to breeding rare/protected raptor species, and increased prey disturbance within nesting territories. Species of conservation concern include active and historic nesting areas for Golden Eagle, Mexican Spotted Owl and Peregrine Falcon, within 1-2 miles of the range site.
Additionally, she expressed concern that the draw of the shooting range might lead to increased "visitation to archaeological sites, and increasing potential damage to these sites."
"Tribal Traditional Cultural Properties (those areas historically and currently valued as sacred to Affiliated tribal nations) near or adjacent to the vicinity may be impacted by increased human interaction- recreational visits, sound impact and viewscape issues," she added.
Back at the NPCA, Mr. Nimkin said opposition to the shooting range is not an attack on the rights of gun owners, but rather focused on the proposed location of the range.
“Even though some people are taking this as a 2nd Amendment challenge, the issue is not that we don’t want a shooting range, it’s just the location. There are a lot of other areas to build a shooting range," he said.