Open Fire!

After years of delays and county manipulations, local shooters are finally getting their ranges

Pima County shooters who saw promised ranges converted into money for Canoa Ranch preservation are getting a fairgrounds-area range and possibly a second southeast-side range.

Shooters joined supporters of the county's 1997 bond election that included $650,000 to buy property for a range near the Tortolita Mountains on the northwest side. The 1997 bond also included $1 million for the Southeast Regional Park Shooting Range at the county's Fairgrounds, at 11300 S. Houghton Road.

Under adjustments approved by the Board of Supervisors, the county moved the $650,000 to supplement funding for the purchase of Canoa Ranch and to pay for rehabilitation of Canoa Ranch buildings. In all, the county spent $6 million on Canoa, triple the amount voters approved for the historic land grant ranch south of Green Valley.

The southeast range has been repeatedly delayed. It was scheduled to be with the bonds that were sold beginning three years ago. Instead, the county broke ground only last month.

A 200-yard and 50-yard sight-in range are scheduled to be completed by this summer, says Carlo DiPilato, the planning and development division manager for county Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation. This first phase will include 12 shooting positions for the 200-yard range and 18 positions for the 50-yard range. Backstops are more than half completed, and a pre-fabricated restroom building, purchased with a grant from the Arizona Game & Fish Department, is already on the site.

The remainder of the facility, including a 100-yard range, an archery range, an instruction range, a shotgun range and administrative facilities is contingent on voter support for the $96.4 million in parks and recreation bonds included in a $732-million package. The bond election is May 18.

The proposed parks bonds include $3.5 million for completion of the shooting range.

Money for the shooting range--as well as the other parks bonds and $485 million in other bonds for open space, Kino Community Hospital, courts and other county facilities, and a new sheriff and emergency radio communications system--will be re-paid with property taxes.

Shooters won't be alone at the fairgrounds site. The bond also proposes $4 million for a sports field complex, including four soccer fields, six baseball fields, parking, trails, picnic facilities and ramadas and a maintenance yard. Development would take a year and a half, county officials say.

Odds are in the shooters' and county's favor. Voters have approved 37 of 43 county bond measures--86 percent--and they have never voted down proposals to borrow money for parks and recreation.

The county doesn't want antagonize the shooters who are ardent voters who also be casting ballots on County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's showcase $172-million open-space bond for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Huckelberry has met with gun enthusiasts and their representatives, including Pima County residents in the leadership of the National Rifle Association.

Their satisfaction is important, according to Margaret Kenski, a respected pollster who has tracked support for the open-space and other county bonds.

While the gun guys and girls might not have huge numbers, they are "a very active group," Kenski says.

They vote. And in a low-turnout special election, that matters. Only 17 percent of Pima County voters showed up for the open space and other bonds in May 1997.

"If they are pacified, it removes the last vestige of opposition," Kenski says of gun enthusiasts' stance on Huckelberry's signature project.

Construction of the range comes after a long delay for replacement ranges for the Sabino Canyon range that was closed by the U.S. Forest Service in response to pressure from development interests.

The Tucson Rifle Club, in its 108th year, offered an attractive, if distant, alternative with its Three Points Shooting Range, 25 miles west of Tucson.

Meanwhile, the county is working on another proposal to acquire Desert Trails Gun Club, 7777 E. Valencia Road. The 29.7-acre property has 21 shooting bays and a 4,000 square-foot building and was appraised for the owner last year at $2.73 million.

The county hired longtime appraiser Sanders K. Solot to perform another appraisal. He put the value at $970,000.

That gulf is widened by county estimates, ranging from $80,000 to $280,000, to clean up lead and airplane and missile salvage. Still, Huckelberry expressed some hope this week that the county and Desert Trails "may not be that far apart."

That would please shooters.

"Tucson has waited a long time to get a regional shooting facility built, and it is very encouraging to finally see progress," says Todd Rathner, a Tucsonan who is a member of the NRA Board of Directors. "NRA members are keenly aware of the need for a regional shooting and training facility for Tucson's thousands of shooters. If we see progress on the county's purchase of the Desert Trails facility, you could see thousands of NRA members, their families and those who align themselves with the NRA going to the polls to vote for the open-space bonds."

The shooting range activity in Pima County comes as the Legislature considers a bill to protect the Ben Avery Shooting Facility in north Phoenix protected from development and sale. The Game and Fish Commission, which oversees Ben Avery, has taken the odd position of opposing the legislation. Members of the commission have repeatedly taken steps to sell all or parts of the 1,650-acre Ben Avery site, although some regard it as one of the top shooting ranges in the country.

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