Recreational Shooting Access Protection is Open Country Focus

Since its inception, Outdoor Life's Open Country program has focused on one theme: Public access.

Within that theme have been two distinct areas of focus: Hunting and fishing. Nothing wrong with that. Hunting and fishing are primary passions of those who utilize public lands and, of course, who read Outdoor Life.

But we have neglected an important demographic of the outdoors community: Recreational shooters. And that group has had plenty of battles to wage when it comes to public land use.{C}

That's why Outdoor Life is proud to announce that Tread Lightly!'s latest initiative is also the newest Open Country partnership.

Let's start with some background on Tread Lightly! as well as the issue at hand.

Tread Lightly! launched in the 1980s as a public awareness program of the U.S. Forest Service with the aim of educating folks about the best way to minimize human impacts when enjoying the outdoors. In 1990, Tread Lightly! became its own nonprofit foundation and continued to provide education and communication efforts aimed at minimizing the impacts the visitors to America's public lands have on the landscape. The goal was simple: Treat the land with respect and access will forever be protected. Such was the premise behind the group's "Respected Access is Open Access" campaign. This campaign will come into play again shortly—read on.

In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to ban recreational shooting in Arizona's Sonoran Desert National Monument, an area covering about 487,000 acres that's proven to be popular for local shooters.

The BLM, in response to lawsuits filed by environmental groups attempting to stop grazing on BLM land, released environmental impact studies showing that recreational shooting was not a compatible use on monument lands due to the large amount of vandalism, litter, and habitat damage being done.

But there was one major problem with that argument: Damaging habitat and littering were already illegal. Blaming the actions of criminals on law-abiding shooters made about as much sense as punishing those who had done no wrong.

It would seem lawmakers agreed. In 2012, the House passed the Sportsmen Heritage Act which, among other things, requires congressional approval for any recreational shooting restrictions proposed on BLM-managed national monuments. The bill further requires the BLM to manage national monument land in a manner that supports, promotes, and enhances recreational shooting opportunities.

Following House passage of the Act, the BLM announced that it would not carry through with the shooting ban and, instead, opted to find a solution that would allow shooting to continue while addressing the very real issues of litter, debris, and habitat damage. What was needed wasn't a ban on shooting but an overall educational program aimed at educating shooters on how to maintain access while also educating the general public about what recreational shooting is really all about.

Enter Tread Lightly!.

"This was a terrific opportunity for Tread Lightly! to step in and do what we do best: create a program that brings everyone to the table to find a solution to a problem," says Lori McCullough, Executive Director of Tread Lightly!. "This is how public lands should be managed. We should work together, get everyone to the table and find a solution. A ban based on poor behavior isn't a solution."

Tread Lightly! has been tapped to adapt its existing Respected Access is Open Access education campaign into a program that promotes responsible recreational shooting practices on public lands. The goal is to implement the program in the Sonoran Desert National Monument as a pilot effort that can then be implemented across the country.

"We look at this as an opportunity to create a program that can be replicated everywhere and will ensure that recreational shooting is able to continue on public lands. Shooting is sort of that overlooked part of the outdoors. It gets a bad name because of the actions of people that aren't really recreational shooters. We've already seen large-scale shooting bans on public lands," McCollough says. "If this fails, this really could be the beginning of the end of recreational shooting on federal lands."

Currently Tread Lightly! is working as part of the Arizona Work Group that includes BLM's Arizona state, district, and local offices along with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service's Region 3.

Why is the Forest Service involved? Simple. Many of the issues that caused BLM managers to consider a recreational shooting ban on the Sonoran Desert National Monument are also occurring on nearby forest lands.

"This is a pilot program focused on the Sonoran Desert National Monument," McCullough says. "But we're not approaching this just as a way to impact one area. This is a program that needs to be designed and implemented on a national scale to protect shooters from future bans."

The Arizona Group is working with the Wildlife & Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, the body that advises the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture on hunting, fishing and wildlife resources and activities on Federal lands.

Tread Lightly! is currently in the development phase of the plan and will soon be reaching out for volunteers to help participate in the process, perhaps as early as October.

"We are trying to bring everyone to the table: land managers, environmental groups, shooters," says McCullough. "That's the only way to come up with a plan that's sustainable and has a chance to work. We're going to need funding, we're going to need volunteers for cleanup projects, we're going to need help spreading the word. This program has the potential to be something very, very special. But we can't do this alone.”