July 14, 2008

Yahoos Hard To Control

The U.S. Supreme Court may have just upheld our constitutional right, as individuals, to own guns, but in just the past four months, gun owners in northern New Mexico have found themselves facing increasing restrictions on where they can use them. Two federal agencies have closed big swathes of public land in the Santa Fe area to target shooting. The closures follow the 2001 closing of much of the Caja del Rio west of Santa Fe, and areas where shooting is banned now include the La Cienega surroundings and the Glorieta Mesa area.

The situation isn't unique to New Mexico. Last year, for example, the Bureau of Land Management considered banning weapons altogether on tens of thousands of acres in Idaho.

The problem is twofold: The smaller part of it is that human settlement is encroaching on the edges of otherwise empty patches of U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management property, making shooting guns, particularly high-powered rifles, increasingly unsafe.

The larger part of the problem lies with the shooters themselves. There are more of them, too, and they are far messier and more downright dangerous than in the past, when the rudiments of gun safety at least seemed to be more widely known and practiced. Nowadays, as federal land stewards here in New Mexico noted in announcing the latest closures, "target shooting" is a euphemism. A "target," they said, seems to be just about anything, including livestock.

We can wish for better law enforcement on our public lands. That's not likely to happen -- federal agencies are already understaffed, and even if the political powers in Washington were so inclined, there is less and less cash available to rectify the situation, much less improve it. Under these circumstances, a shooting ban seems to be the only alternative.

To their credit, BLM officials here are also talking about opening a public gun range near La Cienega. They hope that the range, which would likely be developed in conjunction with the nearby National Guard and the state Department of Game and Fish, might curb damage from shooters to neighboring public lands. Properly managed, the range also could revive gun safety etiquette, to the relief of many and the benefit of all.

The range is several years from becoming reality, alas -- federal and state bureaucracies don't move quickly. The other problem, of course, is whether the worst elements of the gun-owning public -- those yahoos BLM officials describe as "indiscriminately shooting up anywhere, everywhere" -- can be persuaded to use it.

There isn't a constitutional right to roam around at will on our public lands,

Another proposed set of federal restrictions, issued just last week and involving the use of motorized vehicles in the Santa Fe National Forest, presents a similar conundrum. The Forest Service wants to cut the number of roads that can be used by vehicles by half and all but eliminate the offroad or off-trail use of such vehicles.

That sounds Draconian, until you consider that the Santa Fe Forest has more roads than almost any other national forest in Western states, and is within day-tripping distance not only of the Santa Fe-Espaola-Los Alamos metropolitan area, but also of Albuquerque. That means many more city folks out in the woods than might have occurred in decades gone by. A fair number of them want to tour the woods with the aid of a gasoline engine--on ATVs, dirt bikes or in 4WD vehicles. Another fair number of them want to tour the woods without the accompaniment of motorized noise.

The Forest Service rightly recognizes that the interests of both those groups need to be balanced. Accordingly, they're reducing by more than half the number of miles of both roads and trails that will be open to motorized use in the future. They're hoping to more drastically reduce the portion of the forest open to the use of vehicles off the roads and trails -- from 53 percent to about 1.4 percent. The proposal got a good review from at least one environmental group, but predictably drew opposition from off-road enthusiasts, who are complaining that their recreation is being unfairly restricted. A number of those who live near some of the more heavily used areas complain that while the restrictions may be admirable, the Forest Service doesn't have the manpower to enforce the current, laxer rules, and will fail even more noticeably at enforcing the proposed more stringent ones, which in any case won't take effect for two and a half years.

Again, too many people, not enough law enforcement. Also again: some "parks" dedicated for the use of off-road aficionados might help the situation. And yet again, it's the few yahoos who think it's their right to tear around off-road, gouging scars in a fragile ecology that, compared to human life expectancy, will be more than permanent, who are the real problem. As with the indiscriminate shoot'em-up types, it's doubtful they're going to settle for practicing destruction only in designated areas.

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