The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recently revoked a local gun club’s 20-year special use permit, citing the group’s proximity to a sacred Chumash Indian site as grounds for dismissal.
The permit was originally given to the Winchester Canyon Gun Club by Los Padres National Forest officials. The club, located off West Camino Cielo, comprises some 85 acres of Los Padres land, approximately 600 yards from the “Husahkiw” – which is Chumash for “Wind Caves” – site. Although the club has maintained operations at this site for over half a century, recent controversy over its location renders the future of the facility uncertain.
Jeff Benson, district recreation officer for the Santa Barbara Ranger District of Los Padres, said the reversal of the 20-year permit is not necessarily a permanent one. He said the reversal will serve as a temporary impasse to allow more input from outside parties, particularly more Native American groups.
“We’re going to back up a bit, reevaluate issues brought up by the appeals team and go through the process again,” Benson said. “We are going to do this as fast as possible – we don’t want this to drag on forever.”
Supporters of the USDA decision alleged that pollution was generated from the nearby shooting club, which compromised the physical and spiritual integrity of the sacred site. The gun club’s sporting grounds were near pigmented Chumash cave paintings and a natural amphitheatre.
Today, the club has a membership of 700 shooting enthusiasts and hosts around 2,160 visitors every year, including students from the UCSB gun club. Earlier this year, the Winchester club applied for a 20-year permit, which it was granted in June as part of a memorandum that stipulated the club implement certain modifications of its facilities.
Chief among these modifications was the permanent closure of big-bore ranges closest to the Wind Caves and the rehabilitation of the land, including the removal of all lead and shooting contaminants. Additionally, the club would remain closed on all solstices and equinoxes so that religious ceremonies at the nearby Wind Caves are not disturbed.
This memorandum and the decision to grant the 20-year permit was followed by appeals from the Coalition to Save Husahkiw-Chumash Wind Caves and their supporters.
Founded in 1997, the coalition is composed of Chumash and other Native Americans, environmentalists, archeologists and rock-art enthusiasts. In its appeal, the Coalition argued that alleged disruptions of religious ceremonies at the Wind Caves violated the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
The Winchester Gun Club, incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1955, has operated on the Los Padres National Forest grounds since 1962. since its initial long-term permit expired in December 2002, the club has maintained authorization under a series of one-year permits.