In Arizona, it's all about dirt. Who has it. Who wants it. Who can peddle it.
On 1,650 acres in north Phoenix is the Ben Avery Shooting Facility, a well-planned, clean, efficient and well-used collection of 35 gun and archery ranges. To some, it is a shooter's mecca, one of the finest shooting facilities in the country and a paradise that is insulated on a chunk of remaining Sonoran Desert.
To others, it is money that can be mined with new houses and an auto mall.
State taxpayers own Ben Avery, which attracts 150,000 shooters a year. The range's fate is in the hands of the five members of the Arizona Game & Fish Commission, who are appointed by the governor.
And despite recent protestations, the commission has dangled the multi-range facility to developers who would build houses to add more Phoenicians and pour cement and asphalt for new car emporiums.
The issue has exposed the commission as one with crisscrossing ties to the capitol, to lobbyists who tell lawmakers what to think and what to do and to the commercial hunting business.
It has reached Gov. Janet Napolitano's office. The first-year Democrat sent a strong message supporting the Ben Avery facility just as it is. U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, a Republican, represents the area and supports Ben Avery. The issue also has spilled into a Phoenix City Council race, where incumbent Dave Siebert has had to contend with meddling from a Game & Fish commissioner and his lobbyist-political handler wife in his race against Ephram Cordova.
This powder got hot beginning last summer, when the commission buried Ben Avery under a three-part agenda item that itself was made to appear innocuous. It included an update on a Northern Arizona shooting range, one in Buckeye southwest of Phoenix and "the financial opportunities under the Ben Avery Shooting Facility Economic Development Plan."
An economic development plan for Ben Avery that did not include shooting revenue, but real estate.
With Del Webb, the real estate giant, pledging a half-million dollars for construction of a new shooting range in Maricopa County, the commission had the bureaucrats in the Game & Fish Department scouting real estate offers for Ben Avery.
Minutes of the June 2002 Game & Fish Commission meeting reveal the real estate's holiest phrase: "highest and best use." With Pulte Homes and Del Webb teamed up to pressure Game & Fish, a study was underway to determine if development of the Ben Avery property could rake in big money.
Shooters were told not to worry because that big money would be used to build an even better Ben Avery someplace else. Another empty promise followed, according to the minutes: "A new range would be constructed before Ben Avery was vacated."
A Game & Fish committee was seeking solid direction that day from the appointed, yet powerful, members of the commission. And it was another classic ingredient of Arizona real estate: What should the study tell us?
"The committee wanted direction from the commission as to whether (Game & Fish) should be at Ben Avery as long as possible and develop accordingly or should the perspective be opened to work with developers to see what long-range opportunities were in selling the property as a large chunk," the minutes note. "In the next 5-10 years, the Ben Avery property could be worth $100,000 an acre."
In the world of money talks, $165 million did more than scream. It grabbed the Game & Fish commissioners.
But while a "variety of developers" awaited the request for proposals, shooters heard and felt only the second half of the money talks cliché. Can bullshit really walk?
Just four commission members attended that meeting: Sue Chilton, an Arivaca rancher who has studied range plants and has angered environmentalists with her views on Pima County's emerging Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan as well as wolf reintroduction; Hays Gilstrap, a masterful politician and Phoenix insider whose wife, Suzanne, a Republican political strategist, is a powerful lobbyist for real estate interests as well as the Wildlife Conservation Council; Michael Golightly, a Flagstaff businessman who is the longest serving member of the commission; and Joe Melton, a Yuma construction man. Joe Carter, who survived 38 years of Graham County and state government, was absent.
Golightly, who presided, stayed out of the voting. It didn't matter. With each application of pressure from bureaucrats or developers, commissioners responded with favorable motions that sailed 3-0. With each, Ben Avery got diced, in the short term and the long term.
One trick, as shooters in Tucson know well, is for opponents to allow housing encroachment. It subverts the assurance and argument provided by a buffer. The closure of the Tucson Rod and Gun Club range had little to do with hiking, jogging, biking and tourism at Sabino Canyon, but everything to do with million-dollar lots that real estate speculators like Martin Stone, the first owner of the Tucson Sidewinders baseball team, needed to sell.
That closure, combined with Pima County's crippled pace to build a shooting range that voters approved with a $1 million bond in 1997, has put a number of Tucson shooters on the road to Ben Avery, be it for competition, practice or recreation.
Ben Avery is a diverse facility, with varied programs for juniors and women, including a free ladies night. Shooting includes single shot, black powder, muzzleload, clay target, small bore, pistol silhouette and cowboy shooting. The site of numerous competitions, Ben Avery also has a 99-space campground.
It was built in 1960 off the Black Canyon Highway and Carefree Road, with the universal goal to get people to stop shooting in the desert. Maricopa County leased the facility for nearly 30 years, but changes in that government put Ben Avery back in state hands.
If there is anyone in Arizona politics you don't want to threaten, it's the gun guys and gun girls. All sorts of shooters from the National Rifle Association to Brassroots and the Firearms Action Committee of Tucson hit Game & Fish by phone and e-mail.
They battered the Game & Fish Commission at a showdown in a crowded room at the Radisson Hotel in Flagstaff the next month. The commission added insult by overreacting with armed security and cops while taped signs instructed citizens to disarm.
Commission members stumbled and backpeddled. Angel Shamaya, founder and executive director of KeepAndBearArms.com, pressed the chairman, Michael Golightly, about the discussion from the previous month. He repeatedly denied there had been a discussion about selling off Ben Avery property.
Shooters gathered other support.
Dave Siebert, who represents the district that includes the Ben Avery facility, wrote to Napolitano in February to explain that he has "led the charge with the Phoenix City Council to protect this range from any residential or commercial encroachment within one mile."
Siebert, a Democrat, told Napolitano that the Game & Fish Commission "was considering the sale of 140 acres of the Ben Avery Range with the intended use as a commercial auto-plex. Although I understand budgetary constraints at this time and the need for additional revenues, the sale of any part of this property would be a great injustice to the memory of Ben Avery (a sportsman and outdoor writer) and those who have worked so diligently to see that this facility is successful."
Napolitano, not one to waste a punch in an unnecessary fight, wrote back on March 27, telling Siebert that the "shooting range is a well-known facility where every year thousands of law enforcement personnel and firearm owners can use their weapons for target practice without fear of putting others in danger. Additionally, maintaining the Ben Avery Shooting Range at its current location is beneficial to the local environment."
The governor said she also would tell Game & Fish bureaucrats of her "strong support for protecting the Ben Avery Shooting Range in its current location."
The range also is in the mostly Phoenix congressional district of Rep. John Shadegg, a Republican and former assistant Arizona attorney general. When Shadegg expressed his desire that the range be left alone, Game & Fish Commissioner Joe Carter replied on Aug. 4 of this year that any concern was unfounded, downplaying any talk of selling the property as "rumors."
"We have worked very hard to quell those rumors and get accurate information to the shooting community," wrote Carter.
Siebert has been targeted by the Gilstrap forces, who have tried to propel Cordova, an asphalt paver, into Siebert's council seat. Voting concludes Tuesday.
Suzanne Gilstrap is active in city and state politics. And she has lobbied on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Council, made up of 31 hunting, fishing and outdoor organizations, including the Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of American, Trout Unlimited, Tucson Rod and Gun Club and the controversial Safari Club International.
As for Ben Avery, few shooters are satisfied that the For Sale sign won't be slapped on a range that costs enthusiasts just $5 a day.