Native American activists and firearm enthusiasts converged upon Los Padres National Forest Headquarters last Wednesday at an open house held by Forest Service officials to provide information about the special use permit renewal process for the Winchester Canyon Gun Club. Located off West Camino Cielo Road on Forest Service land, the gun club-in operation since 1969-consists of several well-defined ranges for shooting rifles, pistols, and shotguns, and also happens to be near several Chumash archaeological sites. While the meeting was intended mainly to provide information about the range, the questions and comments offered by those who showed up provided a sneak peek into the tension that exists between those who wish to continue shooting responsibly at the club, and others who feel that the noisy activity is disruptive to Native American spiritual practices. On top of that, illegal shooting outside the range is often confused with gun club activity, an association that gun club members are quick to point out does not exist. “In general, you aren’t going to find a more responsible group of people trying to contain their impact to one area,” said Becky Davis, a member of the club who uses the range to test munitions designed by Custom Cartridge, a company she co-owns with her husband.
For thousands of years-long before the first Spanish settlements began popping up in the late 18th century-the area around present-day Santa Barbara was peopled by several groups of Chumash Indians. While they aren’t known to have left any architectural monuments, pre-contact natives did leave behind a plethora of burial sites, decorated caves, and other spiritual relics that today’s Chumash have reconnected with in the wake of centuries of proselytization to Christianity. However, in the intervening years since the Chumash practiced spiritual rituals in places such as the Painted Caves and the Wind Caves near Winchester Canyon, those areas have also become popular havens for hiking and shooting. Chumash have taken issue with the latter. “The constant bombardment has an effect on my spiritual practice and it’s got to stop,” said Monique Sonoquie, an activist with the Coalition to Save Husahkiw-Chumash Wind Caves who takes groups to the caves to engage in ceremonial rituals. Sonoquie also expressed concern that stray rounds might strike visitors, though gun club members responded that none of the ranges currently open are near that site.
Several others Native American advocates suggested that the gun club be relocated, but gun club members said Winchester is at its current location because of its distance from peoples’ homes. Not only would the cost to find the club new housing be prohibitive, they said, but the noise of shooting is one thing that cannot be mitigated, particularly since silencing devices for firearms are against federal law. “People will always shoot, and this will give them a place where it can be kept safe,” said gun club member Scott Blair. Bill Warnekros, president of the club’s board of directors, said that moving the club has not even been discussed by the board. “It wouldn’t be a viable option for two reasons: One, our membership wouldn’t stand for it, and two, the Forest Service Master Plan specifically includes our gun club in its current location,” he said, explaining that having worked with a Forest Service archaeologist and a Chumash cultural monitor in the past, the club agreed to remove the 300-, 600-, and 900-yard big-bore range that had coincided with the area where the Wind Caves are located. “We haven’t shot down there since 1998.”
In the meantime, the Environmental Impact Study for the gun club’s special use permit -which was submitted last year, but appealed by a coalition led by the Sierra Club-will continue, with its public comment period running until January 18. The Forest Service invites people to send comments to Project Team Leader Jeff Bensen, Los Padres National Forest, 6755 Hollister Avenue, Suite 150, Goleta, CA 93117; or by telephone at (805) 961-5744. Comments can also be emailed to email@example.com.