The quest to find a suitable site for a shooting range to serve northern Arizona sportsmen and law enforcement officers has entered its next phase.
Arizona Game and Fish has zeroed in on the privately owned, 160-acre Foster Ranch, which is a mile southeast of the Walnut Canyon National Monument, as a likely location for a general public shooting range that could eventually be expanded into a larger, regional range.
The Game and Fish Commission will meet in Phoenix behind closed doors today to discuss acquiring the ranch, which sits about 5 miles southwest of Winona. Then, on Saturday, it will consider a recommendation from staff to purchase the property, which was appraised this past December at $1.1 million, according to staff.
If the commission goes forward with the land purchase, it could signal the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel to open a Game and Fish-run shooting range in northern Arizona -- a 16-year exercise in near-futility. Site after site has been thwarted by either noise and traffic concerns raised by potential neighbors or the time, cost and complexity of completing land swaps with other agencies that hold land.
Game and Fish turned its attention to Foster Ranch when two other potential sites located east of Flagstaff but north of Interstate 40 were unlikely to be opened by 2013 -- the agency's self-imposed deadline to have a Game and Fish-run range up and running. Game and Fish has $2 million held over from a previous appropriation designated for a northern Arizona shooting range. The acquisition and construction of the range will be entirely funded by hunting and fishing license fees.
Local law enforcement officials are expressing tempered enthusiasm, since there is no standardized training facility in northern Arizona for their officers to access easily. As many as a half-dozen agencies have officers who could maintain and sharpen their skills at a nearby range.
"For law enforcement to have access to a controlled training environment -- that would enhance our training capabilities," said Lt. Ken Koch of the Flagstaff Police Department.
Game and Fish has no estimate of what a northern Arizona shooting range of that size and scope wants would draw in "shooter days." (Shooter days are defined as the purchase of a one-time user fee.) But about 17 percent of the Arizona population participates in recreational shooting, meaning if that percentage holds true for Flagstaff (based on its 58,000 population), as many as 10,000 recreational shooters from the city alone could use the range.
But questions remain whether the ranch's location near a national monument and some houses will present the same challenges over noise that prevented at least three other proposed shooting ranges from getting off the ground.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Getting to Foster Ranch requires a 5-mile trek down partially paved, but mostly graded dirt Forest Service roads. At the Winona exit, 9 miles east of Flagstaff, Forest Road 82 bends south, and around a hillock are a dozen, if not more, neatly kept ranchettes on a county land.
About the only sounds that break the quiet when resident Maria Horton rests on her covered porch are muffled interstate traffic, the occasional passing vehicle on FR 82 and calls from the neighbor's peacocks and Guinea fowl.
Horton has lived out here for 16 years, reveling in the quiet, solitude and spirituality that she says country living has provided her.
Asked about the likely increase in traffic a shooting range might yield, she diplomatically said Wednesday, "We're far enough back so it might not be that big of a deal."
But clearly Horton thinks the shooting range will change things. To her, the Foster Ranch location just doesn't seem practical because it's a "funky road" (FR 128) to get there. She suggested Two Guns, which is about another 20 miles down the interstate.
"There's better access, and it's a place that's already impacted," she said.
The Forest Service land south of Winona is a popular hunting and wood-cutting area, so Horton has grown used to the traffic along FR 82 during those seasons. A shooting range might just make that level of traffic year-round.
"People have different values," she said, and then paused and added philosophically, "Not everyone values quiet."
SYMBOLIC OF BYGONE DAYS
The final quarter-mile drive into Foster Ranch is a passable, dirt two-track in four-wheel drive SUV. Whether passenger cars would be able to make it during the winter or spring melt is questionable.
A cattle guard and gate mark the entrance to the ranch's headquarters -- a dozen or so abandoned structures, including bunkhouses, stables, corral, barns, other living quarters and fencing that has lost its battle with the elements to stay upright.
The buildings are set in a gentle depression of the land with slopes rising to the east and west. Cowboys who worked here must have enjoyed the stunning views of the San Francisco Peaks 12 to 15 miles to the northwest.
Taken in as a whole, the corral, the livestock chute, barn and bunkhouse now stand merely as symbols of a bygone era.
SOUNDSCAPE, WILDLIFE ISSUES
A mile to the northwest of the ranch's buildings lies the southeastern boundary of Walnut Canyon National Monument; the monument's visitor center is a little more than 3 miles away, as the crow flies.
Charles Strickfaden, a chief ranger for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, said his agency has heard from Game and Fish about its plan to purchase Foster Ranch.
"They have advised us as a neighbor that they are considering this," he said.
If it goes through, Strickfaden said his agency would look at soundscape and wildlife resources that might be impacted by the presence of a local shooting range.
One of those wildlife resources is the Mexican spotted owl, which makes its home on Anderson Mesa, and is listed as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
"We would look at soundscape or wildlife resources that might be impacted and we would make a recommendation if there would be any impacts," Strickfaden said.
MOST FEASIBLE BY 2013
In 2009, Game and Fish decided to scale back its quest for a regional shooting range in favor of a smaller range that could be put into service by 2013. The agency identified three main criteria for potential sites:
1. It had to be within a 30-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff.
2. It had to have enough acreage to be able to be expanded into a regional range that would have more shooting stations and capacity.
3. It had to be fully operational in 2013.
Two sites under consideration north of I-40 and east of Flagstaff would have required complex land swaps with the Forest Service. Environmental impact studies alone would cost up to $780,000, said Game and Fish staff. Additionally, one of the sites was determined to have a high density of cultural artifacts, likely eliminating it from contention.
Game and Fish also started approaching private landowners to see if they might be interested in selling, and in December 2009, Foster Ranch became a possibility.
Doug Burt, spokesman for Game and Fish, said that the Cochran Hills site located north of I-40 and the Willard Springs site located north of Munds Park and east of I-17 still "meet the criteria" of potential locations.
But clearly by the items on the commission agenda, Game and Fish has Foster Ranch in its sights.
Laura Clymer can be reached at email@example.com or 913-8601.