Conservationists, shooters, tribes and government agencies are applying pressure on the state commission that wants a shooting range 1 mile southeast of Walnut Canyon National Monument.
Some would like the shooting range relocated to a site an hour from central Flagstaff.
But so far, Arizona Game and Fish says it plans to proceed with building and opening the shooting range by 2013 at the latest.
The proponents say the state's purchase of Foster Ranch ends a difficult 15-year search for a shooting range in northern Arizona.
Giving shooters this option, they say, could improve hunter safety training and reduce the number of trashed shooting sites in national forests here.
Those opposed say the shooting area would degrade the peace and quiet for Walnut Canyon's 117,000 annual visitors in a monument that's also historically important to 11 tribes.
TWO SOUND STUDIES
Perhaps a key factor in either argument is the noise projected in Walnut Canyon from the shooting range, and there are two sound studies on that matter.
The National Park Service measured sounds at Walnut Canyon for 22 days last August, including the day a series of rifles, pistols and a shotgun were fired individually and together at Foster Ranch to test the volume.
Without shooting, the sounds heard at the rim of Walnut Canyon were typically 25 decibels, or about the volume of a whisper.
On the day of the shooting test, the Park Service found sound went to between 30 and 60 decibels, topping out at about the volume of a conversation or a busy office.
Sound volume doubles every 10 decibels. Thus, 60 decibels is 8 times as loud as 30 decibels.
EXPANDED BOUNDARIES SOUGHT
Walnut Canyon is nearly surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, and there is occasionally shooting in the forest near the canyon already, according to park staff.
"During hunting season ... we often receive complaints from visitors about gunshots heard," said Cindy Parker, a guide at Walnut Canyon. "Comments like, 'Oh, what a shame we can hear those gunshots here,' are not uncommon,"
Local residents, organized as Friends of Walnut Canyon, have lobbied for an expansion of the national monument beyond its existing 3,600 acres and six miles of canyon. The proposal has not advanced even to the formal study stage.
AUDIBLE AT TIMES
Game and Fish also hired a consultant to measure sounds during one day of testing, and he found sound from the shooting range was just slightly less then what the National Park Service found.
"At the locations approximately 3 miles away (the nearest residential property and Walnut Canyon), the shooting noise was often inaudible or only barely audible. At these locations, all of the testing events were not measurable. Although audible (at times), the shooting noise was always less than the ambient level," Game and Fish sound consultant Tony Sola wrote.
Both sound consultants say gunfire would be audible at times, but they don't agree on how bothersome or acceptable it would be.
The Park Service said these sounds could be troubling to endangered birds that sometimes nest in Walnut Canyon, among others.
"... I would like to emphasize that just a small change in decibel levels can have a significant impact on the surrounding natural sounds," wrote Charles Schelz, a park ecologist who studies sound in the national parks near Flagstaff. "In fact, a small addition of external noise can significantly 'mask' any surrounding natural sounds,"
Added Schelz: "...The shots were loud and clear at all the primary areas in the monument where visitors and residents spend time."
Diane Chung is superintendent of the Flagstaff area's national monuments, and she's opposed to a shooting range being located about three miles from the monument's visitor center.
"We are worried about the impacts on visitors and wildlife," Chung said.
Game and Fish plans to build sound-dampening structures at the shooting range, and the sound studies don't account for those.
SOME SHOOTING THIS YEAR
Game and Fish plans to open the shooting range somewhat incrementally, having already purchased the site for $1.1 million, said Jay Cook, the person in charge of the range at Arizona Game and Fish.
"There's no other option right now. If you want to shoot, you have to go shoot in the forest somewhere," Cook said.
It's possible some events would be held there this year, before the 160-acre site is totally complete with a trap and skeet area, a firing range, and places for archery and camping.
At full build-out, the range would accommodate an estimated 10,000 shooters annually, or an average of about 27 people per day, paying perhaps $5 or $7 apiece to shoot. In the short term, it could be powered by wind, solar or generators.
Proposed shooting range sites near Bellemont and Munds Park have been defeated by public opposition, but even some opponents have been calling for a shooting range for a long time.
"There's been two decades of public discussions over this," said Norm Freeman, a Chino Valley resident and member of the Game and Fish Commission who supports the range at Foster Ranch.
"The shooting range will make less of an impact on the canyon than the cars driving to the canyon," Freeman said, adding that the agency has done studies to ensure endangered animals won't be harmed by the noise from any such facility.
The range could lead to more education about firearms and less shooting in the forest at large, he said.
That point is somewhat debatable: Target shooting in the national forests would also remain legal for any who don't want to use the range.
Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart is not taking a position on the shooting range, the agency stated through a spokesman.
The National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of Flagstaff's Future and the Center for Biological Diversity have taken aim at the range in letters and public meetings.
The Hopi Tribe is also opposed, and its chairman has said as much.
Friends of Flagstaff's Future says adding a shooting range could reduce the number visiting Walnut Canyon and spending money in Flagstaff more than a shooting range could draw in tourism dollars.
The National Parks Conservation Association plans to follow up with the Coconino National Forest if that agency grants any rights of way for power lines or anything else to the shooting range.
"They're within a mile of the monument, so that's a big problem," said National Parks Conservation Association's Kevin Dahl.
If the Forest Service grants access for such items as power lines, the conservation group will argue that the Forest Service is legally required to do a full environmental analysis of the pros and cons of opening a shooting range.
"I was shocked when Game and Fish revealed in their presentation to City Council that one of their reasons for selecting this site was to avoid federal compliance," Dahl said.
PRIVATE SITE LESS COMPLICATED
The question of where to put a shooting range last came up in 2009, when Game and Fish was eyeing a site on the national forest near Munds Park for a larger shooting range.
Figuring in years for land swaps, environmental studies and lawsuits, the Coconino National Forest estimated it would take about a decade before any shooting range could be constructed near Munds Park.
Game and Fish then began looking for another site that was privately owned and came up with Foster Ranch.
But another site that was on the list of finalists was operated by Game and Fish itself: The Raymond Wildlife Area and buffalo ranch about 70 minutes east of Flagstaff off I-40.
Game and Fish, however, says the location does not meet the shooting range criteria of being within a 30-minute drive of Flagstaff.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.