Public Lands Under the Gun: Recreational Target Shooting Puts Federal Public Lands in the Crosshairs

Cyndi Tuell

Federal public lands are a popular place for unmanaged recreational target shooting (RTS). With millions of acres of undeveloped lands relatively close to urban areas, federal public lands are easy to access and provide a remote location for an activity that is not often encouraged closer to developed lands.

Unfortunately, this activity has a significant impact on those lands, as well as the small local communities nearby. The costs to clean up areas used for RTS can reach millions of dollars and the damage done to natural resources is often permanent. There is at once a grassroots effort to protect public lands from the negative consequences of this activity and a congressional push to force this activity onto public lands regardless of the impacts.


RTS is allowed on most federal public lands, including lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and on some National Monuments. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with more than 40 private shooting organizations, including the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, which requires the federal land managers to notify the private organizations of any closures of target shooting areas on an annual basis. [1]

Most RTS enthusiasts are engaged in “plinking,” or informal shooting just for fun.[2] Most people who engage in RTS in preparation for hunting are white (<90%), male (<90%), above median income, and from urban areas.[3]

While RTS has been accepted on federal public lands for many years, recently the public is becoming more aware of the significant impacts RTS has on public lands. These impacts include destruction of native vegetation, visual disturbance when natural objects are destroyed and landscapes are scarred, visual disturbance when targets, shells and ammunition are left behind, and disturbance to wildlife and other recreational users of public lands. Additionally, soil contamination results from the accumulation of spent ammunition (lead contamination), plastic shell casings (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and targets (varies depending on the target).

RTS attracts many people who participate irresponsibly. Targets used for shooting go beyond a paper target or clay pigeon and often include furniture, electronics, trash, native vegetation, archaeological sites, and sometimes live animals, both wild and domestic. The electronics often used as targets by irresponsible shooters can leave behind chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic, selenium, and mercury. These heavy metals persist in the soil and can contaminate surface or subsurface water.

Cost of clean up

Cleaning up RTS sites includes removing trash and addressing toxic soil conditions. One example of the high costs of cleaning up an informal RTS area can be found in Redington Pass, on the Coronado National Forest. This area was favored by RTS enthusiasts for decades and the U.S. Forest Service did little to manage the area other than support clean ups on an irregular basis.

Prior to one cleanup effort, a local resident expressed concerns about extremely high levels of lead in the soil that would pose a health threat to everyone participating in cleanup activities, especially children. As a result, the soil was tested and found to be extremely high in lead (up to 68,000 mg/kg).[4] The Forest Service then closed the areas to all entry and began the process to remove the trash and toxic soil.

The cleanup effort in Redington Pass cost more than $530,000.[5]  More than 955 tons of trash and soil were removed.[6] More than 1,490 tons of lead contaminated soil was removed.[7] Yet in some areas, the soil lead levels remain higher than 1,500 mg/kg.[8]

Redington shells

turtle shot closeup

target at stock tank

target in fence

tree trash target

A clear example of the high costs of cleanup can be found on private property near Nogales, Arizona. This site is a private target shooting range used by Customs and Border Protection. Due to the high levels of lead and polyaromatic hydrocarbons in the soil, the shooting range was recently cleaned up using 3.7 million taxpayer dollars.[9]

Problems exist all over Arizona’s public lands

Examples of RTS impacting natural resources, contaminating soil, and displacing other users can found throughout Arizona. In 2001, the Tonto National Forest closed over 80,000 acres to target shooting due to unacceptable negative impacts to natural resources. The Agua Fria National Monument proposed a ban on RTS to more than 71,000 acres in 2005 after archaeological sites were damaged[10] and in 2013, the Ironwood Forest National Monument prohibited RTS after monument objects, including saguaros, were destroyed by target shooters.[11] Hunter and Ash Canyons in the Coronado National Forest were closed to RTS in 2014 due to unacceptable levels of damage to natural resources. The Sonoran Desert National Monument was sued for failing to address the impacts of RTS to monument objects in its 2012 Recreation Management Plan and is now revisiting their decision to leave the monument open to RTS.[12]

In the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, local activists have asked the Forest Service to close an informal and unmanaged RTS area that is within one quarter mile of a local community. They have been seeking help to protect their community since 2011.  A soil sample from the area, known as the Pat Mullen Cinder Pit, was tested by an Arizona lab on December 7, 2015. The results of the tests indicate that the level of lead contamination in the soil sample is as high as 2,100 mg/kg, which could pose a significant health risk to local residents and any person using the area.

The soil lead levels are nearly three times the level that would require cleanup of an industrial site under Arizona law. This RTS site is also an area where children play in the soil and the area drains directly into the stream that provides the local community’s drinking water well field. The local community has been asking the Forest Service to address the issues of noise, dangerous shooting, trash, and soil contamination since 2011. Thus far, the Forest Service has responded by saying they do not have the authority to close the area to shooting.

Regulatory Authority to Manage RTS

Fortunately for the community, the Forest Service is incorrect – they do have the authority to manage RTS sites, whether they are formally designated or not.  In fact, federal land managers have a variety of tools at their disposal to manage RTS areas.

Arizona’s Soil Remediation Levels (SRLs) are found in Arizona Administrative Code Title 18, Chapter 7, Article 2.[13] The SRLs are used by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to help determine if sites have been adequately cleaned up. These standards are also useful for land managers as a reference to determine whether a RTS site on public lands poses a health risk to the public.  By comparing the soil lead levels found at RTS sites to those the ADEQ would consider for cleanup (over 400 mg/kg for residential areas and over 800 mg/kg for non-residential sites), a land manager can clearly determine whether the lead levels on public lands meet the requirements for cleanup by the ADEQ.

Federal land managers can use land management planning processes such as Forest Plan Revision[14] or Resource Management Planning[15] to identify problem RTS sites and take action. The agencies would comply with the National Environmental Policy Act[16] and various other regulations, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,[17]  Endangered Species Act,[18] the Wilderness Act[19] the National Forest Management Act[20] and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act[21] during this process.

In more urgent situations, federal land managers have the authority and duty to manage federal public lands and to address health and safety concerns. The U.S. Forest Service can use its authority[22] to immediately close the contaminated or dangerous RTS sites for a period of one-year, or until the problems are remedied. No National Environmental Policy Act analysis is required for such a closure. A closure could be initiated immediately and remain in place while the soil lead levels and other safety concerns are assessed and rectified. The Bureau of Land Management has similar authority.[23]

Federal land managers also have authority under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to address the soil contamination at RTS sites known to be contaminated.[24]

Congress Interferes

Unfortunately, in response to land managers doing their job and protecting natural and cultural resources for all public lands users, Congress, under pressure from private organizations such as the National Rifle Association, has responded with new legislation entitled the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act of 2015.”[25] This act would exempt ammunition from the Toxic Substances Control Act and prevent land managers from limiting the use of lead sinkers or shot where wildlife would be harmed,[26]  increase the amount of Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act funds used to acquire target shooting ranges, and require federal land managers to “facilitate” RTS on certain lands and includes a waiver of laws to accomplish this goal.

In a statement to Congress, Steve Ellis, the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management, explained how lead poisoning remains a concern for wildlife – including waterfowl, bald eagles and the endangered California condor – and that preventing land managers from regulating lead sinkers and shot would further imperil these species and others. This DOI testimony also addressed the requirement that land managers facilitate target shooting, and that waiving environmental regulations to do so will put public lands and natural resources at risk.


In stark contrast with the position of the National Rifle Association and certain members of Congress, many people who care deeply about public lands are beginning to recognize that the multiple uses of our public lands have limits. Some in the conservation community are now calling for more responsible management, including bans on lead ammunition and tighter regulations on RTS sites.

With all the other threats to our public lands, it is time we recognized that some uses of these lands are not appropriate if we are to continue to enjoy these lands for recreation, spiritual renewal, and to rely upon them for clean water, clean air, and as havens for wildlife.



[1] U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Private Organizations, Memorandum of Understanding (2006), at 10 available at

[2] Tom Allen et al., Target Shooting in America: Millions of Shooters, Billions of Dollars 3 (2011).

[3] Richard Aiken, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., Target Shooting by Hunters and Their Use of Shooting Ranges: 1975, 1991, and 2011 8 (2014).

[4] Weston Solutions, Inc., Final Removal Action Report – Phase II, Redington Pass Shooting Area, Coronado National Forest, Arizona (2014), page 3 (on file with author).

[5] U.S. Forest Serv., Coronado National Forest, Redington Pass Cleanup Table of Costs (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request) (2014).

[6] Western Solutions, supra, note 4 at 4.

[7] Id. at 21.

[8] Id. at 5.

[9] Paulina Pineda, CBP to Pay $3.7M for Cleanup at Former Gun Range, Nogales International, (Dec. 18, 2015)

[10] Agua Fria National Monument, BLM National Landscape Conservation System FY 2010 Annual Manager’s Report, U.S. Dep’t. of Interior, 26 (2010),

[11] U.S. Department of the Interior, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Record of Decision and Approved Resource Management Plan, U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 14, 71 (2013),; Appendix I of the EIS.

[12] Nat’l Trust for Historic Pres. v. Suazo, 2015 WL 1432632 (D. Ariz., 2015).

[13] See especially Appendix A.

[14] 36 C.F.R. § 219.

[15] 43 C.F.R. § 1610.

[16] 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (1969).

[17] 16 U.S.C. § 703 et seq. (1918).

[18] 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. (1973).

[19] 16 U.S.C. § 1131 et seq. (1964).

[20] 16 U.S.C. § 1600 et seq. (1976).

[21] 43 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq. (1976).

[22] 16 U.S.C. § 551; 36 C.F.R. 261.50(a); 36 C.F.R. 268.51(m).

[23] 43 C.F.R. § 8364.1.

[24] 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq. (1994).

[25] H.R. 114-377.

[26] Essentially repealing 50 C.F.R § 20.21 which has protected waterfowl from lead poisoning for decades.


Book Review

In the News

On the Web

On the Docket