Legs crossed and gaze fixed firmly downrange, Benjamin White-Patarino settles himself onto the concrete and exhales. As he holds his breath, the afternoon wind dies and with it the rustle of the dry fall grasses.
The world pauses for a moment, totally silent.
Gunshots crack out in the silence.
White-Patarino starts breathing again and stands as the wind resumes. He lowers his vintage rifle, an M1 Garand chambered in bullets as long as a finger. He breathes deeply for a few seconds, allowing oxygen to return to his muscles before he shoulders the 10-pound rifle, folds to the ground and takes aim again.
Downrange, the lead bullets slam through a paper target and into the dirt hill behind, 10 shots in 80 seconds. Almost every one of them rips through the target’s black center, which at this distance is smaller than a pencil eraser. No fancy scope or laser sights ease his shots, but White-Patarino needs neither. Years of practice honed in college and in competition have earned him the right to call himself a champion.
“That’s a good one,” he says to his mom, Pamela White, who clicks off her stopwatch as she observes his target practice from a safe distance.
A history buff, park ranger and champion marksman, White-Patarino, 28, finds himself on the front lines of an increasingly heated fight between shooters and the hikers, mountain bikers and mountain residents who want to see shooting curtailed on public lands.
All across the West, federal and state land managers are struggling to balance the demands of recreational shooters with the fear that their bullets are starting fires, frightening other land users and accidentally killing others. In some cases, land managers have enacted “temporary” shooting restrictions that have remained in effect for decades. Other government officials are trying to push recreational shooters onto a handful of developed shooting ranges such as the one White-Patarino uses while promising to build more if they can raise the money.
Many recreational shooters say only a small number of reckless people are to blame for the undeserved reputation their sport has acquired and that rangers should simply do a better job of enforcing existing rules, which already ban shooting near homes or limit the use of steel bullets or exploding targets. They’re worried government officials are unfairly targeting their long tradition of using public land for target practice in an area of the country known for hunting and gun-friendly cowboy culture.
Nowhere is the conflict more sharply felt than perhaps at Colorado’s Front Range, where 4.8 million people live, work and play at the junction of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. The stakes, quite literally, can be life and death.
In 2015, a grandfather camping with his family was killed by an errant bullet that came whizzing out of the darkness in the forest south of Denver. Two months earlier, a couple’s Jeep was hit by a bullet in that same area of the 3.1 million-acre Pike and San Isabel National Forest.
Since 2010, United States Forest Service officers handled 8,500 shooting incidents across the country. Of those, 926 were in the Pike and San Isabel forest.
Existing regulations already ban dangerous shooting, shooting near homes or shooting across roads. But there’s almost no one to actually enforce that: The Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest northwest of Denver, for instance, is bigger than Delaware but patrolled by only four U.S. Forest Service officers, although local sheriffs and unarmed rangers help out.
In many cases, the solution has been blanket bans, most often implemented during the hot, dry summer months when wildfire danger increases rapidly.
Even without fire restrictions, finding a place that’s safe for White-Patarino’s powerful rifle – and where no one will complain about the noise – is getting harder and harder. The private rifle club near his home charges hundreds of dollars a year to belong, and that’s only once you’ve waited years for a spot to open up.
“Being able to shoot and compete with a rifle that was used to defend our freedom is really interesting and important to me,” White-Patarino says. “You’re really interacting with a piece of history.”
Like many shooters, White-Patarino has been watching with frustration as large swaths of the West evolve away from everyday gun use. Millions of city dwellers from the more liberal East and West coasts are moving here, bringing with them their opposition to open carrying of firearms, to hunting and to public shooting.
“In the shooting community, there’s an understanding that potentially every bullet has a lawyer attached to it,” said Ryan Elliott, a recreational shooter who is also a fire investigator for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. “Unfortunately, it only takes a few people to spoil it for everybody else.”
That’s the challenge shooters face: A single bullet can kill or spark a devastating wildfire that destroys homes, ruins forests and taints drinking water.
Retiree Don Simpson knows that all too well. His log cabin sits on private land near the border of the Arapaho-Roosevelt forest in northern Colorado. A few years ago, he and his wife were tidying up outside when she found something unexpected.
“All of a sudden she says, ‘Come up here and look at this,’ ” Simpson said. “There laid the bullet.”
Best as Simpson can tell, someone who was recreationally shooting in the nearby forest failed to properly consider what was on the other end of their rifle and fired a shot that slammed into his window frame and dropped to the sill.
“I thought, gosh, that’s the bathroom window,” Simpson said. “A couple of inches either way and it could have hit somebody.”
Simpson, who considers himself a friend of recreational shooters, shared photos of the bullet and damage with federal officials considering a plan to dramatically restrict shooting on public lands across a large portion of Colorado’s Front Range in return for building a small number of public ranges.
Shooters across the West who have seen that plan fear government officials in their states will take it even further by permanently banning shooting in places where shooters have been firing for generations. Of the 10 fastest-growing states nationally, eight are in the West, and most have significant amounts of public lands that traditionally been open to shooting: Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Oregon, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. All those new residents need homes to live in and land to recreate on, and the pressure is squeezing shooters.
“It comes down to safety,” said Reghan Cloudman, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. “When things are getting so concentrated, you run the risk of safety concerns, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.”
The proposal in Colorado – which is being closely watched by recreational shooters across the West – would permanently halt sport shooting on 225,574 acres of the most heavily used national forest in northern Colorado. While the number of acres is relatively small, the areas targeted for closure contain many of the most popular and easily accessible shooting sites. Those are also the sites closest to homes and roads.
Recreational shooters see the Northern Front Range Recreational Sport Shooting Management Partnership as an indicator of things to come, when regulators spend more time listening to new residents and ignoring longstanding traditions.
“We’re starting to see significant closures of recreational shooting on public lands, and that’s a major concern for our agency,” said JT Romatzke, the northwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Sometimes it feels we’re almost trying to criminalize those shooters on the landscape, and that’s probably the most unfortunate thing I’ve seen.”
Romatzke’s agency recently opened a massive new shooting range in western Colorado, but it’s more than 200 miles west of the state’s largest population center, Denver.
Recreational shooters who live in more populated areas know they’re under the gun. And they’re not happy about it.
“Many of the complaints are about the noise, which people equate to something unsafe. I can shoot right next to you and you will be perfectly safe, or from a mile away, and you won’t be safe if I don’t do it correctly,” said Mark Baldini, 55, a northern Colorado resident and recreational shooter who is frustrated by the growing restrictions. “On the other hand, people shooting safely and responsibly make the same amount of noise as those who are being irresponsible. Beyond visual range, you don’t know what kind of shooter you are dealing with.”
Baldini said he needs to shoot on public land outside formal ranges because he likes to target shoot at distances up to a mile, far longer than what’s available at most ranges. The best option for him, he said, is public land. Like other military veterans, Baldini found himself drawn to shooting even though his service has ended, encouraged by access to higher-quality firearms and cartridges that for some elevate target shooting to an art form.
Recreational shooting has rapidly gained popularity in recent years. From 2012 to 2014, the number of people shooting recreationally jumped more than 24 percent but has leveled off in the past several years. Today, about 49.4 million Americans shoot recreationally, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The data also shows that the number of people who just go hunting is declining, while the people who shoot recreationally – without hunting – is growing.
Land managers say there’s a clear trend in America away from hunting and toward target shooting, where the participants are increasingly younger and urban. Those younger, more urban shooters need places to participate in their hobby but don’t have their own backyards in which to shoot, prompting them to turn to public land.
Baldini has closely followed the proposed restrictions in Colorado and wishes rangers would better enforce existing rules instead of punishing everyone. “We’ve all heard the story of a few bad apples. In a lot of ways, that applies here,” he said.
The problem is one of numbers. Because so many people like to shoot, even a “few bad apples” represent a massive risk potential.
Elliot, the BLM Nevada fire investigator, likes to say that if shooters think there’s a one in a million chance they’ll start a fire, then it would take less than a month to do just that on the 12 million-acre district he patrols.
“We’re going to have on a given day, 150 to 250 recreational shooters a day. If you have 200 shooters a day, and they each spend 200 rounds of ammunition, that’s 40,000 rounds of ammunition in a single day,” he said. “If you’re thing about starting a fire with one in a million rounds, that’s a fire every 25 days. The numbers get really big, really fast. People don’t realize that.”
Federal law requires the BLM to investigate and cite anyone who sparks a wildfire, accidentally or not. That keeps Elliot bouncing around the dusty rangeland of northern Nevada around Reno and Carson City, an area that’s twice the size of Vermont. He looks at what’s happening in Colorado and worries his superiors will ultimately clamp down on recreational shooting elsewhere.
It’s not an academic exercise: This summer has seen dozens of wildfires sparked by shooters across the West, from July’s 12,500-acre fire near Aspen, Colorado, that destroyed three homes and cost $17 million to fight, to the near-simultaneous ignition of two fires in Elliot’s district near Reno in mid-September. In Idaho, shooters sparked three wildfires over the July 4 weekend, and a target shooter in Utah sparked an 800-acre blaze in August.
Authorities have tried to reduce the risk by banning exploding targets and tracer rounds, which are often the cause of fires. An off-duty Border Patrol agent celebrating his wife’s pregnancy by shooting an exploding target accidentally started the 47,000-acre Sawmill Fire, which burned parts of the Coronado National Forest in April 2017, causing $8 million in damage. And two shooters are facing criminal charges for using banned tracer rounds at a Colorado shooting range that sparked July’s Lake Christine Fire near Aspen, destroying three homes worth $2.6 million.
But while exploding targets and tracer bullets often make headlines for starting fires, there’s a far more mundane cause that traces back to President Barack Obama’s tenure, when conspiracy theorists persuaded many gun owners to begin hoarding ammunition. Ammo dealers quickly ran out of regular bullets and began selling cheap steel-cored ammo from Russian-bloc countries. Steel-core bullets are usually banned during wildfire season, but many gun owners who bought that cheap ammo are now using it for target shooting – and unaware they’re firing steel, which is far more likely to start fires than lead bullets, Elliott said.
“It’s surprising that we don’t have more fires when you look at this in that context,” said Elliott, who carries a magnet to help show shooters the difference in ammo.
Simpson, whose house was hit by a bullet, said he doesn’t want to see shooting restricted. But at the same time, he’s frustrated the number of reckless shooters appears to be growing.
“There’s just too many people up there who can be impacted,” he said. “These are public lands for people use, and the people who hit our house are probably in that 1 percent. Now, lately, it’s almost every day on the weekend someone is out there shooting. It’s starting to freak a lot of people out.”
White, her son’s biggest fan and supporter, said she’s disappointed to see so many new people moving to the West without respecting its traditions. She acknowledges the damage caused by irresponsible shooters but said it’s not fair to punish everyone else, especially when the loudest voices for clamping down seem to be the West’s newest residents.
“It’s kind of like moving next to a pig farm and complaining about the smell,” she said.
This article provided by NewsEdge.