Redington Blues

Trash and shooting ranges have made the pass east of Tucson a polluted, dangerous mess

The ground is alight, as sunshine sets a carpet of broken glass shimmering like diamonds. Souvenirs from years of neglect, these remnants of beer bottles and television screens and other miscellanea worthy of target practice are likely to endure here, at Redington Pass, long past our earthly demise.

But more sinister residue also remains, from those decades that the Coronado National Forest allowed these foothills east of town to become a defacto shooting gallery for any idiot with transportation and bullets to burn.

In fact, this highland outpost is downright dangerous. But you won't see any signs explaining how, in some spots, lead levels from spent ammunition are thousands of times higher than federal safety limits. And while the area is fenced off, it's hardly inaccessible. On any given day, you're likely to find fresh shell casings or a still-warm campfire.

Meaning that the Coronado, having spent years ignoring this disgrace on its doorstep, is now failing to tell us about a potential hazmat site in our midst. Earlier this year, the forest and volunteer groups hauled out 75 cubic feet of garbage; photos show folks raking up debris with nary a face mask in sight.

For my part, I prefer looking from a distance. With me on this steadily warming day is Cyndi Tuell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. She says forest officials simply tuned out the mayhem at Redington Pass until the whole mess was shoved in their faces.

This began with the rancher a couple of years back who took the initiative of testing shooting-site soil for lead. "The readings were off the charts," says Tuell.

When the cattleman turned his results over to the government, Tuell says, the feds just ignored him. So she started hounding them herself. "Dust blows off the soil, which creates a problem. People were out here shooting, getting it on their clothing, their feet and their hands, and then eating lunch, taking it home to their kids."

But even after she reminded the Coronado about the serious toxics issue in its backyard, "they did nothing," she says.

Then came the garbage. "This whole stretch was just littered with trash bags. In the shooting areas you would find couches and entertainment centers. Any time I came out here during that period, I'd find at least three televisions—and sometimes four or five—in the shooting zones."

Finally, she threatened to drag the Coronado to court for a fistful of environmental violations, which included allowing lead to collect in drainages during heavy rains.

Nothing focuses the bureaucratic mind quite like the whiff of litigation. "I got tired of hearing them tell me they were going to eventually do something about this lead contamination." Tuell says. "I finally told them in 2012 that they had failed to do anything for long enough, and if they didn't do anything soon, I was going to sue them. This is a public health risk."

Soon after, the forest hauled off its garbage and commissioned a toxics analysis. Numbers from that study arrived this spring, and they were scary: While EPA's safe, non-residential lead levels peak at 800 parts per million, some Redington hotspots registered a staggering 68,000 ppm.

Yet weeks later, fence or no fence, folks are obviously still tromping around this site. And on my visit in late May, I spot plenty of restricted-access signs, along with those proclaiming a shooting ban. But I see nothing that warns potential trespassers against entering a toxic nightmare the Forest Service has let fester for years.

Larry Pratt is a Coronado recreation project manager overseeing the Redington Pass clean-up. "There are no signs regarding the lead levels," at Redington, he says, because the lead analysis "has not been reviewed by the Forest for how it's going to be made public."

But is the area a risk to public health? "No comment," Pratt answers.

In truth, one could argue that Redington Pass has been a treacherous place for eons. Most sensible campers and hikers abandoned it long ago, for fear of gun-toting yahoos coming here to stalk TV sets, refrigerators, or the occasional cow. Then there are pure savages such as Justin Curren and Steven Glenn Sharpe, who several years ago drove up to Redington with a pit bull terrier, which they lashed to a tree for target practice. Before escaping, the dog was wounded in its neck, face and legs.

All of which left Redington a feral fringe of urban sprawl, where most human discourse was monosyllabic and most wildlife had simply vanished, while Coronado officials mostly looked the other way.

Coronado's negligence is particularly curious, given that pitching your tent in Forest Service campgrounds will instantly summon a fee-collecting ranger—even as forest officials blame dwindling manpower for their inability to police Redington Pass.

Still, spokeswoman Heidi Schewel denies that the Service has forsaken Redington. "Actually, we've cleaned it up several times with volunteer groups," she says. "However, recreational shooting is an acceptable use of national forest land if it is done responsibly ... It's people going out there who are not responsible that create the kinds of problems that we're seeing."

Beyond that, it's just a game of Whac-A-Mole. "You've got to be able to catch the people in the act," says Schewel, "to be able to educate them or give them a violation notice. It's all about being in the right place at the right time."

But others argue that the time for excuses is running out. "There has been shooting up there for decades with no clean up or remediation at all," says Kirk Emerson, who heads the advocacy group Friends of Redington Pass. "So it's not really a surprise that it would have concentrated pollutants up there. It has become a public health concern."

But with the newly minted study now in hand, the Coronado is pledging a timely turnaround. Sometime this summer, crews are expected to descend upon Redington's hot spots, where they'll scrape the surface, stabilize it with cement, and ship it to some hazardous waste site. The goal is bringing lead contamination down to EPA-acceptable levels.

All of this is expected to cost somewhere in the $100,000 range—or less than you'd imagine it would take to pay a Forest Service cop to keep morons from trashing Redington Pass in the first place.