Standing amid the litter of shell casings, broken bottles and blown-apart electronics at a makeshift shooting range just south of Golden, it would be easy to convince yourself you’re out in the boonies.
The place, an old gravel pit surrounded by wooded hills and dotted with dirt piles, appears to be custom-made for setting up targets and practicing your shot without bothering a soul.
The people who live up on the ridge a few hundred yards away from this bullet-riddled dirt pit would beg to differ. They listen to the tat-tat-tat and boom-boom-boom of shooters from dawn to dusk every weekend and often during the workweek. They keep their dogs on leash and don’t dare take a walk down the north slopes for fear of catching an errant bullet.
I went out to this piece of Bureau of Land Management land near the intersection of state Highways 14 and 344 in the San Pedro Mountains to take a look at another intersection – the one where the multiple uses of public lands meet.
Up on the ridge, the residents of the San Pedro neighborhood live on lots of 10 to 40 acres, many in homes they built themselves.
“I suppose it goes without saying that the reason many of us live up here is for the peace and quiet and to be in a beautiful setting,” one of the residents, Elizabeth Morgan, told me.
That’s how it was up here for years. An occasional target shooter took advantage of the old gravel pit, and everyone made peace with that. Then, in the past couple of years, the place, a small piece of BLM property, became a target-shooting magnet, especially on weekends when people park RVs and set up for hours of shooting.
“It’s just a constant barrage,” neighbor David Armstrong told me. “It’s gotten crazy.”
Ruth Carraway, a retired schoolteacher who has lived nearby since the early 1970s, said she loves to hike but would never walk near the shooting area. “I don’t want to be taken down by a stray bullet,” she said.
John McKinnon, who has a house in the San Pedro neighborhood and enjoys target shooting at commercial ranges, says he would never shoot into piles of dirt of what was previously a gravel pit, because a bullet could ricochet off a rock.
“It’s unsafe,” he said. “All good intentions aside, something could happen.”
It’s perfectly legal to fire a gun on BLM land. The only restrictions the agency puts on shooters is that they can’t use vegetation, structures, signs or glass bottles as targets, can’t shoot toward a road, must remove spent shells, brass and targets and that they must be “safe” and not create a “public hazard” or “public nuisance.”
Sam DesGeorges, the BLM’s field director for the area that includes the San Pedros, said he has encouraged neighbors to call the local BLM ranger and report violations. He said the ranger shows up regularly and has cited offenders.
But when I dropped in the other day, it was obvious that glass bottles were being blasted and that targets and ammo were not being picked up. The ground was awash in spent shells, broken skeet shooting discs, aerosol cans that had been used as targets (boom!) and casings from AR-15-style rapid fires. There was also evidence that targets had been set up facing N.M. 344, which sees vehicle traffic and lots of bicycles. The long, steep stretch of the highway that passes the shooting range is a popular training route known to cyclists as Heartbreak Hill.
I asked DesGeorges if all that, along with constant noise, couldn’t be categorized as “public nuisance.”
“It would be in the eye of the beholder,” he said. Nothing so far, he said, has persuaded him he needs to take action on the range.
And that is the puzzle of public lands. All sorts of things are in the eye of the beholder. What’s an appropriate use? If you’re a miner, it’s mining. If you’re a hiker, it’s hiking and you’d rather not step in a mine hole. If you’re a target shooter, you’d rather not have people on horseback getting in your way. If you ride a horse, you really don’t want people shooting guns nearby.
I mention hikers and horseback riders because on BLM land on the opposite side of N.M. 344, just across the road from the shooting range, there are plans to put miles of recreation trails that would allow people on foot and horseback to get up into the San Pedros.
This seems like a collision course for the BLM, an imperfect triangle of target shooters who want to fire away, hikers and riders looking for a wild experience and neighbors who would like a little peace and quiet.
DesGeorges seems unconcerned by the potential for disagreement over how the land should be used. He said it’s an integral part of managing public lands. “We deal with conflicts,” he said.
He envisions a series of public meetings about the potential trail system starting later this year, with all users of the land telling the BLM what they envision for the property and voicing their concerns about uses they don’t want.
The result of that process, he said, will be a pile of information that he will sift through. He could conclude that the shooting area should be closed, or limited in hours to assuage neighbors’ concerns and ensure safe hiking, biking and other recreation. Or, he said, he could find that there’s nothing wrong with the trails and the range being neighbors.
“There’s nothing,” DesGeorges said, “that’s off the table.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal