Figuring in years for lawsuits, land swaps and environmental studies, a proposed shooting range near Munds Park would not be built until about 2019, Forest Service officials estimate.

After learning this, Arizona Game and Fish commissioners last weekend asked staff and opponents to begin looking at other possible sites for a northern Arizona shooting range instead of the Willard Springs site off Interstate 17.

"We've got an extra 90 days to find sites that we think would work better, that would have less opposition, that would have a better chance of getting done quicker," said Bill Moore, general manager of the Munds Park RV Resort.

The RV park's owner, Garry Schuster, had threatened to sue to block the shooting range due to noise and other potential impacts, and he had gathered more than 1,000 petition signatures against it.

There was also some support for it locally, Moore added.

The Game and Fish commission plans to reconsider the proposed shooting range in June.

"I think right now it's just a matter of us taking a little bit of time to re-evaluate the process and … the sites so the commission can make the best choice in June," said Ron Sieg, regional supervisor for the Game and Fish Department.

Area shooting groups and individuals have been asking Game and Fish to build a shooting range in northern Arizona since at least 1994, but prospective neighbors have not always been enthusiastic about having high-powered rifles and crowds sometimes numbering in the thousands nearby.

"We've been dealing with this now for 15 years," said Josh Avey, of Game and Fish, who is in charge of efforts to establish the range.

He said a shooting range is in demand in northern Arizona for safety, convenience and environmental protection, as opposed to various target shooting sites scattered among many cinder pits.

The last Forest Service and Game and Fish attempts to build a shooting range in Bellemont, beginning more than a decade ago, were withdrawn in 2003 following litigation by nearby landowners.

"Until I see something happen, my feelings are the people who are trying to make money on real estate will do everything they can do to put the kibosh on it if it's anywhere close," said Herb Bridgman, one of the owners of Ruff's Sporting Goods.

He lived in Bellemont when that shooting range was litigated by his neighbors.

In the spring of 2006, the Game and Fish Commission tentatively selected Willard Springs for the site of an 800-acre, $2.5 million shooting range that would offer camping for hundreds of motorhomes, and archery, shotgun, rifle and high-powered rifle shooting and events. Up to 4,000 shooters and spectators could attend competitive events.

During hearings in 2006, residents Munds Park argued both for and against the range, saying it was needed or would be disruptive.

It wasn't until the fall of 2007 that the Coconino National Forest had an agreement with Game and Fish to study the feasibility of exchanging land with Game and Fish, according to a national forest spokesman.

Contractors working for Game and Fish said the shooting range would likely be constructed in 2008, but that didn't happen.

If the shooting range were to be built at Willard Springs, the Coconino National Forest would first need to do a feasibility study, then a multi-year environmental analysis of the costs and benefits of exchanging forest land for this purpose before a land swap could occur with Game and Fish.

The estimated cost of the environmental analysis alone is $788,000.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

A brief history

1994 Flagstaff Trap and Skeet Club loses its ranges at Fort Tuthill. Coconino County Sportsmen contact Arizona Game and Fish to request a shooting facility in the region

1996 Game and Fish Department selects a site in Bellemont

2003 Game and Fish drops the idea, following litigation from nearby residents

2005 The department begins another search for a shooting range site, ultimately deciding in spring 2006 that Willard Springs near Munds Park is the best option. Construction will begin in 2008, say consultants working for Game and Fish, but it doesn't.

2007 The Coconino National Forest begins studying the feasibility of trading Forest Service land for a Game and Fish-run shooting range. The feasibility study has yet to be completed.

2009 The local Forest Service office gives estimates of 2019 for construction of a shooting range. Arizona Game and Fish Commissioners delay a decision on the range, moving to consider other sites and decide in June.

Sources: Arizona Game and Fish, Arizona Daily Sun archives

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