Get Out There: Guide to Shooting on Public Lands

What’s a BLM? BLM is the Bureau of Land Management. They’re the guys who run the open public lands, mainly in the western United States. They manage oil, gas, and mineral leasing rights on US property, along with grazing rights and rights to other things I can’t begin to understand. BLM also manages our National Monuments, like Craters of the Moon in Idaho and the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in California. Their most recognized accomplishment is the National Landscape Conservation System, which includes over 9 million acres of designated Wilderness Areas, including the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwestern Montana and the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness in Arizona. So, what does this have to do with guns? . . .

BLM lands that aren’t designated as National Wilderness or Special Areas are wide open for sport shooting. We’re talking hundreds of millions of acres in the western United States. There are a few basic rules to follow, and then you’re good to go. Here are some shooting guidelines from the BLM Colorado web page,

Shooting and possession and use of firearms are allowed on public lands managed by the BLM as long as the activity:

• Does not create a public hazard, public nuisance or direct threat to public safety and use. This includes the shooting any weapon from, across, or toward any road or trail, regardless of the road or trail surface, shooting in an unsafe manner, or shooting in an unsafe direction.

• Does not damage or destroy natural features, native plants, cultural resources, historic structures or government/private property. This includes using any vegetation or structure as a target, backstop, or target holder.

• Does not facilitate and create a condition of littering, refuse accumulation and abandoned personal property. The shooting of any glass bottle, container, or material that would break into small pieces and create a hazard or litter is prohibited. All spent shells or brass are considered litter and must be removed by the shooter.

• Does not violate an existing use restriction, closure order or supplementary rules notice.

• You must not possess or discharge a firearm or explosive device in violation of any applicable State Law.

 

That last part is really important, especially if you live in California. Again, be sure to check with your BLM district office before lugging your arsenal into the hills.

Now, let’s talk about not being stupid. The opportunity to shoot on BLM land can be considered a privilege, in that they can take it away if we screw things up. Nothing brings this literally closer to home than watching my favorite patch of BLM land, Bear Trap Canyon in Montana, burn to the ground because some idiot was careless with fireworks.

Respect the power of this land. Clean up after yourself, and don’t set anything on fire. That means no incendiary or tracer rounds. I try to adhere to the same “Leave No Trace” guidlines that hikers and campers follow, but without a brass catcher it’s kinda hard to avoid leaving a few casing behind.

Okay, we all agree to respect the land and be safe. Where can one find this magical shooting place called BLM? You can start at the blm.gov website, select “Our Offices/Centers” then pick your state. The Maps page will get you links for purchasing BLM maps. In addition, a bit of digging under Recreation or Resource Management can yield maps for specific areas.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Last Best Place, the Montana Cadastral Survey  will show you land borders down to the inch. There are likely similar products for other states, so do some research and find one for yours.

You can also shoot on many National Forest Lands; wilderness.net has a great map of National Wilderness and National Forest areas, but remember, you cannot shoot in a National Wilderness area.

So now you’ve found a place to shoot. What else do you need to know?

First and foremost, be respectful of others. Pack out what you brought in. Don’t leave old targets and stands behind. Follow the regulations and guidelines provided by the National Forest Service and the BLM:

* You cannot discharge a firearm within 150 yards of a residence, building, campsite, road, parking lot, body of water, high-use trail, etc.
* You cannot shoot at night.
* You cannot shoot in restricted areas.
* Don’t be a dick (my words, not theirs). If you’re 151 yards from a family with with toddlers enjoying a picnic at the lake, find a better place to shoot.
Gun enthusiasts have enough problems with their public image, so don’t give the government a reason to chase shooting enthusiasts off their bigass lawn. The right to shoot on public lands is as ingrained in our charter as the right to self defense.

If you need more info, your favorite search engine is your friend. Here are some search terms (be sure to add “in ‘yourstate’”): “BLM Recreational Shooting Areas”, “Firearms Regulations on BLM (or National Forest) Land” “Cadastral Survey Map” “BLM Land Map” “BLM Land Boundaries” “Target Shooting on BLM Land (or Public Land)”.

37 Responses to Get Out There: Guide to Shooting on Public Lands

  1. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Another rule: Don’t shoot up what look like old, rusty water tanks.

    Some rancher is depending on that tank holding water for their cattle, and the wildlife, feral horses, etc are depending on that water improvement working too. This also means don’t shoot up old windmills, pipelines, etc.

    • avatarBob says:

      How about just “Don’t shoot up any man-made structure or improvement that you might find on BLM/National Parks land.”

      I can’t tell you how many times I have seen an abandoned cabin, or ghost town, or gold/silver mine head, that was shot up to hell. Those things have a lot of historical significance, and they belong to all of us. Some people just have no respect for other people’s property.

  2. avatarRalph says:

    any road or trail, regardless of the road or trail surface

    This has proven to be a very nasty prohibition. “Any road or trail” covers anything that is or was a trail or road, no matter whether it has been used as such in the last century or was abandoned before Columbus. A game trail is a road or trail. An old cart path is a road or trail. An old horse path is a road or trail. Need I go on?

    BLM is just another one of the Fed’s boondoggles and freedom-killers.

    • avatarfred says:

      I call bs on that statement. i found a great place to shoot in socal w maps on these links and blm staff were very helpful confirming ok.

  3. avatarJohn Barlow says:

    Here in New York things are much more complicated. The DEC controls the BLM land. They have so many extra rules it is almost not worth trying if you are within 100 miles (literally) of NYC.

  4. avatarDon says:

    How about this simple rule, from personal experience, a corollary to rule #4 of gun safety:
    “If you aren’t familiar with where these trails go and don’t understand the concept of a backstop, don’t shoot here. Moron.”

  5. avatarMark N. says:

    Fortunately, we have a dedicated BLM range just out of town. Backstop is a mountain, and acess is just pull off the (county) road. Since the mountain is also a superfund toxic waste site (former mine), there aren’t any hikers out there you can’t see, and no trails either. The firing line is made up of large bolders. Regulations are clearly posted. During the summer, shooting stops at noon because of fire danger. Around these parts, you can leave your brass because someone will be along soon to recycle it. The only issues I’ve had are with broken bottles. Pretty laissez faire, but a good place to shoot.

  6. avatarJack Straw says:

    I used to live in San Diego and watched most of the BLM shooting areas get shut down. After many years of using these areas my faith in human nature and the good sense of many in the shooting community members hit rock bottom.

    The incredible mess left behind by some of these morons defies description. Refrigerators, TV sets, engine blocks, a few old motorcycles, you name it and we have seen it (and tried to drag it out).

    I think the room temperature I.Q. of too many shooters says “if I can shoot out here I can do ANYTHING out here”.

    Unfortunately it seems that at least a few (I hope it’s a minority) of the BLM Rangers or perhaps, their administrators feel that having shooting on OUR public lands creates too much work for them. As if we’re not paying them enough already.

    I live in Arizona now and generally the situation is better by virtue of more readily accessible back country but even here near Prescott there are a couple of spots of National Forest land that have been comprehensively trashed. Arrrrgh.

    Just employ common sense and courtesy. Pick up everything you can. If a Ranger stops by to check you out open your actions and step away from the weapons. If hikers or picnic seekers wander toward your area give ‘em time and space to clear out. Don’t shoot ANYTHING other than a legitimate target, no glass bottles, no gallon cans of paint.

    Messes and fire hazards get the wrong kind of attention but can be somewhat defused by organizing clean up days.

    I’m 62 years old and I’ve been shooting on public lands since I was 8. I’d kinda like to keep doing it.

    • avatarDaveM says:

      Jack Straw- 1950 was a good year
      Still living in the SD area and you are correct about BLM land closed to shooting unless I want to drive 100 east to the desert.
      We used rakes and shovels to pick up after ourselves and hauled out the slob shooters junk.
      One time at Kitchen Creek I found a truck load of paper with company logo, brought them to the local ranger station and suggested they investigate and prosecute, couple months later range was closed.
      We used steel plates and reusable reactive targets along with 12 GA hulls lying all over the place that I would chase all over the place with rifles and hand guns.
      Shooting non reactive paper targets has not been as satisfying or improved my skills.
      Rumor has it that there are some areas that there are still open but it is a closely guarded secret.

    • avatarPedro Alvarado says:

      I would like to do some target shooting. But i dont know where in San Diego. Any spots you might recommend? Thanks

  7. avatarJason says:

    I’m confused by the comment that you can’t shoot in National Wilderness. Hunting may be allowed in National Wilderness, right? Is the only exception when you are actually hunting?

    Thanks,
    Jason

    • Generally, you’re right; hunting is allowed in National Wilderness areas, but target shooting might not. Two things to be aware of: first, even in a designated National Wilderness, state hunting laws apply. Second, hunting is treated different than target shooting in these areas; some are posted that they allow only sighting shots and shots on animals. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s to check with your BLM district authorities and appropriate state office.

  8. avatarChris Nojima says:

    2 things I learned from my experience on BLM:

    1. safety nets are gone – everyone involved must be extremely safety conscious. No RO to yell at you or double check that guns are cold before heading down range. ironically or not, my friends and i were more rigorous in our safety procedures than the most draconian ranges i’ve heard of.

    2. “Leave no Trace” is hard, but doable if prepared. We several packed large (30×40′) tarps to spread out on and use as brass catchers. That alone saved us hours of bent-over, hunt-n-pick, and kept the brass relatively clean for reloading. We also make it a habit to not only pack out what we brought, but also to clean up after the previous shooters’ messes if at all possible; it’s just so much nicer to shoot in a clear area rather than dodge empty bottles, glass, etc.

    • avatarIdahoPete says:

      Another handy way to pick up brass, especially for us OFWGs with arthritis – buy one of those “Gopher” grabber/extension devices with small rubber gripping cups on the ends of the grabbing arms, and attach a medium-large aquarium fish net (6″x8″) to a broomstick or dowel. Hold the fish net close to the ground, and use the grabber thing to flick your brass into the net. Quick pick-up on uneven ground, no bending, much less hassle than carrying a tarp with you. One exception: if you are going to be shooting a few hundred .22s, take the tarp. The “brass plucker” will take forever.

  9. avatarPhydeaux says:

    A great way to pay down our out of control national debt would be to sell all land owned by the feds, except for national parks and military facilities.

    • avatarDavid Liberman says:

      Those lands are responsible for over 5 billion dollars of annual revenue for the government, of which about $20 million per year comes from land sales. Most of the rest is from pulling minerals out the ground and trees off the top.

      • avatarihatetrees says:

        That’s a reason not to sell?!?
        Land with mineral rights royalties gets a bump in price. Of course, this assumes a transparent auction, not an under-the-table dump to friends and family.

        Start sellin’…

        • avatarMartin Albright says:

          1. Never gonna happen.

          2. If I wanted to live someplace where all the land was owned by private owners who kept recreational users out, I’d move East of the Mississippi.

          Public lands are the best thing about the West, by far.

  10. avatarCurzen says:

    “without a brass catcher it’s kinda hard to avoid leaving a few casing behind”

    then get yourself one.

  11. avatarSanchanim says:

    From our CA BLM:
    Target Shooting is allowed on public lands with some exceptions (see above Final Supplementary Rules for Public lands and Public Land Closures and Restrictions).

    When target shooting, you must provide your own targets and remove your debris when you leave your site. It is illegal to deface or destroy trees, signs, outbuildings, or other objects on federal lands that are for the public’s enjoyment. CFR 8365.1-5 (a) (1) & (2).

    Please use paper targets only. Shooting glass objects is prohibited. When you are finished target shooting, we require you to remove all your targets, gun shells, clay pigeons, and any and all items used for your target shooting.

    The Mother Lode Field Office often receives requests from the general public on the location of good places on the public lands to go target shooting.

    Much of the public land managed by the Mother Lode Field Office is technically available for target shooting. However, there are several problems:

    The public land parcels tend to be small, irregularly shaped, and scattered throughout the Sierra Foothills. It can be difficult to know with certainty when one is on public land or on private property.
    Over the past fifteen years, a great deal of urban development has taken place in the Sierra Foothills, much of it adjacent to the public lands. There are now roads, subdivisions, shopping malls, and homes where there used to be pastures or wildlands. Much of this development is occurring so quickly, the BLM staff isn’t aware of all of it.
    Use of public lands for outdoor recreation activities including walking for pleasure, hiking, horseback riding, mountain bikes, and off-road vehicles is increasing.

    The bottom line is that we are very reluctant to recommend the places to shoot that we once did because of safety considerations due to population increases.

    Citizens are certainly free to scout the public lands under our jurisdiction to find suitable sites for plinking. A good shooting area has legal access, an effective backstop that absorbs bullets without producing ricochets, an unobstructed view so that no one can wander into the line of fire without being seen, and no nearby buildings, especially occupied private residences.

    All shooters, of course, are expected to always follow all principles of firearms safety, and to obey California State laws on the use of firearms.

    Our recommendation is to either look for a good site in an area where there are very large parcels of Federal land with little development (some travel would be necessary), or choose to go to a shooting range. Please check the Shooting Range Locations Listing.

  12. avatarTR says:

    Ditto on the fire thing. Anyone watching the news lately knows that Utah is on fire, and one of the biggest fires in the Northern area has been blamed on shooters. Consequently the antis (though they may be few here) have been all over that like a fat kid on cake, screaming for tighter gun laws and a ban on target shooting. No further details have been released as to how or why the fire started, but it started in an area that actually has a sign that says ‘No Tracers, Explosive Targets, Incendiary Rounds’ or something to that effect. Nevertheless, on any given night you can usually find some idiot shooting tracers out there.

    • avatarjoecr says:

      They need to start arresting the idiots shooting the trace rounds as it is only legal to shoot them in the air forces bombing range. I don’t think that is the best part of the state to shoot a gun because I don’t know when they will do a practice bombing run.

  13. avatarMartin Albright says:

    FWIW, most of the rules you have mentioned also apply to National Forests. Having said that, you do have to be careful about seasonal/temporary closures. For example, the recent wildfires in Colorado have cause the Roosevelt and Arapahoe National Forests to ban all recreational shooting except for established ranges. Pike National Forest (where I go shooting) is still OK for shooting but they have permanent shooting closures in certain areas (basically areas of high activity for other types of recreation.)

    And I’ll echo the others: Pack it in, pack it out. Seriously, it’s not that difficult to take your trash with you. When non-shooters see areas that shooters have polluted with trash it just gives more of a justification to close the areas to all shooting.

  14. avatarIdahoPete says:

    “Gun enthusiasts have enough problems with their public image, so don’t give the government a reason to chase shooting enthusiasts off their bigass lawn. The right to shoot on public lands is as ingrained in our charter as the right to self defense.”

    A few tips based on 40+ years of using public lands for plinking, sighting in, etc.: (1) Pick a spot that no one else is using, so you are NOT seen as part of the “slob shooters” group that leave old TVs, bottles, washing machines, etc., behind them. (2) Find a spot that is not readily visible from a well-used road, has a safe backstop, etc. This will help you avoid the attentions of the government agencies. (3) Do not tell anyone else about your favorite shooting spot, once you find it. I will guarantee that they will tell a friend, who will tell a friend, …. and your private spot will become another trash pile for slob shooters. (4) Pick up your trash and leave the place so it does NOT look like a shooting location. That helps avoid attention from the gummint.

    In other words, go for unobtrusive. If no one knows you are out there shooting, no one will tell you to stop.

  15. avatarJack Straw says:

    Idaho Pete,

    Good call on not telling ANYBODY about your favorite spot. My best shooting buddy and I used to have a perfect spot. Just one time we invited another person there. Same old story……BLM now has that area on it’s shut down list.

  16. avatarJeremy Brown says:

    Hey David, great article.

    I am fairly new to shooting, and have researched and learned as much as I can, I really now need some time actually shooting. I live near Choteau Montana, and we have a local range, but it is really just some Rancher’s land, and he has it closed most of the time, or at least it has been closed every time I have went there after buying my membership.

    I have purchased a BLM map, but many locals tell me that I cannot shoot on these lands for various reasons, though I have been told by law enforcement that I can. The problem I am having is just figuring out which are legal and which are not.

    Are all BLM lands acceptable to shoot on? Is Montana Trust land okay to shoot on? The Cadastral map you linked is very detailed, but I don’t see much of the “yellowish” color near where I live.

    There is quite a bit of Forest Service land near me as well, but I get a bit confused at which is okay to shoot on. For example, I know that it is not okay to shoot in a National Park, such as Glacier National Park, but what about just general Forest Service land like that found in Flathead National Forest?

    Sorry for all the questions, but this has become very challenging, I don’t want to break the law, and I don’t mind travelling to the range near Great Falls on occasion, but I want to go out by myself and just kind of get a feel for it before I present myself on the range…if that makes sense.

    Clearly I understand common sense, and common courtesy, so I know the basics such as shooting near buildings or roads, etc. I would be greatly appreciative of any advice! Thanks for a great article.

    Jeremy

    • Hi Jeremy, sorry for the delay. Just saw your comment.

      BLM maintains public access to their lands by default. They lease grazing and mineral rights, usually to landowners adjacent for their cattle to graze. The landowner doesn’t have the right to control your actions on BLM property; however there are instances of access restrictions being written into grazing rights. When in doubt, call your local BLM/Forest Service district office. the DNRC trust lands I’m not sure of. If it’s a Habitat Management area, then shooting’s a definite no-no. Otherwise, your FS district office is your friend. In Choteau, you’d be in the Rocky Mountain district, which manages the Lewis & Clark National Forest. When you look at the cadastral west of Choteau, see all that green for the L&C forest? You can shoot there under the same rules as BLM. Flathead is good to go, too.

      I’d recommend that when you call the district office, ask them something like, “I’m going to shoot in in the 24N 9W quadrant (or if you can give them the Forest Service road access number, like FS3121, that’s better) of the Lewis & Clark National Forest. Are there any local restrictions I should be aware of?”

  17. avatarKeith says:

    Great article! It should be obvious but if you pack it in, pack it out! All of it! Including the shards of clays if legally allowed and you choose to shoot ‘em. Dont forget the plastic wads as well.

    I lead volunteers out to BLM in San Diego. We clean, then shoot and clean again. I have a single POC and all our events are relayed to the Officer who patrols the lands. He has stated that he “hasnt seen the areas as clean as they are for years”. If you want to see the good we have done, check out calguns.net, specifically the San Diego Chapter and search for “Musick” (my user name). Been doing this since March ’13 and will continue to do so.

    I encourage everyone who cares about their local BLM areas to clean up after irresponsible shooters as well as yourself. Yeah, it sucks, but shooting there is so much more rewarding than on a range.

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  19. avatarRebecca says:

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  20. avatarMichael McLean says:

    Looking for some where to shoot
    in socal ! I’m in OC so within 100 miles ?

  21. avatarKeith says:

    Michael,

    Most areas are now closed to shooting until we start getting some decent rainfall. That said, the closures were different this time around. They MIGHT be off-limits for good.
    Check out your districts BLM site for additional details.

    Effective Beginning Friday, May 23, 2014,

    and until further notice:

    For all BLM-managed lands within the jurisdiction of the Palm Springs – South Coast Field Office that fall within the Stage III Seasonal Fire Restriction area, recreational target shooting of any type is prohibited. The Stage III Seasonal Fire Restriction area includes all BLM lands in San Diego and Orange counties, portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and most of Riverside County west / south of Highway 111, and west / north of Highway 62.

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