The hot sun of mid-July cast a particularly harsh light on the part of Forest Service Road 217 known by western Boulder County residents as the “lower shooting area.”
Shotgun shells, bullet casings and paper shooting targets litter the area. Several healthy trees have been shot down. A bullet hole-riddled television set that’s served as a target for recreational shooters sits broken on a rock formation.
For some, the sight alone should be enough to incite a permanent closure of the area to recreational sport shooting.
“To me, that’s not target practice,” Raymond resident Bill Ellis said, surveying the land. “That’s utter destruction.”
Initially frustrated with the regular noise and pollution and the general environmental and safety risk, Ellis, a sport shooter himself, began pushing for the county to prohibit recreational shooting off Forest Service Road 217, which is, at its closest, less than a mile from residents of the small mountain community where he lives on land his wife’s family has owned for decades.
But that concern escalated when a soil and water sample conducted by Trout Unlimited — the organization solicited to do the research when Ellis contacted the Left Hand Water District with his questions about the potential impact on the water — demonstrated that there are elevated levels of lead, zinc and copper in both the soil and water near the shooting area.
This information led Ellis to begin contacting the Boulder County commissioners. A group of about 75 residents submitted a written request in November, asking the county to close down the areas along Forest Service Road 217 near Raymond to recreational shooting, and to close all public land areas to shooting within a one-mile radius of the community.
Ellis said the county acknowledged receipt and said they’d respond in more detail soon. That never happened, and once the Dec. 30 Marshall Fire occurred, staff resources were diverted to the county’s fire response.
Concerns about heavy metals contamination
Raymond residents are frustrated with the noise, trash and fire risk associated with recreational shooting on the national forest land near their home.
But perhaps most of all, they’re worried about the potential impact of the heavy metals contamination found when Lauren Duncan, an abandoned mine lands restoration project manager with Trout Unlimited, took samples around the shooting areas off Forest Service Road 217.
Soil testing done in the fall of 2020 at the shooting location nearest to Raymond showed lead concentrations of 79,000 milligrams per kilogram, which well exceeds the Bureau of Land Management’s recreational screening level of 800 milligrams per kilogram.
These lead concentrations are also over 5,000 times higher than measured in a nearby area where shooting does not occur, the data shows.
There is intermittent drainage below the area where shooting occurs. The drainage is a tributary to Cave Creek and the Middle St. Vrain Creek.
Water sampling conducted in the spring of 2021 indicated that there was at that time 30 micrograms per liter of dissolved lead in the drainage at the lower shooting site.
In Cave Creek, specifically, because it has been used as a recreational area, Duncan confirmed she did find elevated metals. The same held true for the samples taken from the downstream St. Vrain water.
“We can kind of assume that same drainage is the cause of the metals in St. Vrain,” she said, adding that sampling upstream did not produce the same elevated levels.
Duncan emphasized none of what she found relates to residences in the area. If people are worried about their drinking water supply, they’d have to do testing on their own.
Aside from elevated metals, Duncan also referenced the extensive damage to the forest itself, including broken and bullet hole-riddled items in the creek itself.
She acknowledged that management of the area is tricky and that she’s been encouraged by how responsive the Forest Service has been.
“Certainly, we can do reclamation, restoration here. No problem. But without the management solution, we’re going to struggle to keep that restoration maintained over time,” Duncan said.
Source of debate
Aside from this location near Raymond, recreational shooting has long been a point of contention in the mountainous parts of Boulder County and beyond.
The Northern Front Range Recreational Sport Shooting Management Partnership formed years ago in an effort to find a solution that provides recreational shooters a place to practice, while giving mountain homeowners and outdoor users a sense of safety.
Boulder County has been part of the effort since 2013, working alongside Clear Creek, Gilpin and Larimer counties to determine a regional approach. Other project partners include the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Working regionally is important since a closure in one county could result in more problems in a neighboring county, Garry Sanfaçon, a project coordinator with the partnership, noted.
The Forest Service in 2019 approved an amendment to its recreational sport shooting management plan that notes areas should be identified as unsuitable for recreational sport shooting if they are in close proximity to residential development or high-use recreational areas.
The amendment also identifies areas with topography or terrain that does not provide for safe and effective backstops or other threats to public health and safety as those that should be considered unsuitable for recreational sport shooting.
As such, the Forest Service recommends more than 200,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests where recreational shooting should be prohibited. However, the ability to do so is contingent on developing public shooting ranges for people to use.
Each county is tasked with handling this work on its own. Boulder County, for example, has identified the expansion of the Boulder Rifle Club as a suitable exchange.
However, funding for the private club remains a challenge. According to Sanfaçon, the county committed about $1 million to the project.
It’s also received grant funding, including a recent $126,000 Colorado Parks and Wildlife grant that will help the club proceed through county permitting and design of a new range that, when completed, will allow closure of dispersed recreational shooting on 82,000 acres of national forest lands in Boulder County.
The county still needs to determine the specific dollar amount for the project, but the $1 million allocation combined with various grant funding likely still falls short of what’s needed, Sanfaçon said.
And while the Boulder Rifle Club expansion remains one of the best solutions for mountain residents’ concerns from the county’s perspective, some people who live near 4810 N. 26th St., the site of the shooting range, aren’t happy with the idea.
Ahead of the 2020 public hearing, in which the County Commissioners approved a portion of the Boulder Rifle Club expansion, a group of neighbors spoke out against the project due to concerns about noise impacts, increased traffic and disturbance to local wildlife.
Additionally, according to earlier reporting, residents near the Rifle Club argued it might not be a total solution for mitigating irresponsible shooting in the wilderness.
“There’s nothing that suggests that in reality this will keep people from shooting in the national forest,” Shannon Bryant, who lives a mile north of the Boulder Rifle Club, said in a previous interview. “They’re going through all these mechanizations to put this in place, but there’s no guarantee that people won’t continue to shoot where it’s free … and it’s closer to where they live in the mountains.”
According to the amended Forest Service management plan, a balanced approach is important when considering recreational shooting.
“I recognize the importance of public lands, especially National Forest System lands, to the longtime and legitimate use of recreational sport shooting,” Forest Supervisor Monte Williams wrote in the plan, adding that he grew up as a recreational shooter himself. “I know how important these lands are to families who want to instill a love for the outdoors in their children and spend summer weekends camping and recreational sport shooting.”
“However, I recognize that the growing Front Range population and increased recreation use of the ARNF are making many areas of the Forest unsuitable for recreational sport shooting,” he continued.
While the Forest Service management plan notes that the closure of 80,000 acres in Boulder County is contingent on opening a public shooting range, Sanfaçon said there are some allowances for individual areas that pose a significant safety concern.
“It does have an adaptive management aspect that allows the Forest Service to assess specific areas and determine if there needs to be immediate action,” he said.
In terms of action at the county level, Boulder County said it’s bound by a state statute that says an area cannot be closed for recreational shooting unless it has an average population density of no fewer than 100 people per square mile in the area designated.
The Boulder County Commissioners have asked the county’s planning and legal team to look into the density of the community of Raymond and Riverside to determine whether a contiguous circle can be drawn to allow a closure to be considered, according to Barb Halpin, special projects and community engagement coordinator with the Boulder County Commissioner’s Office.
“It can’t just be done because the commissioners say so,” Halpin said. “They have to meet certain requirements to propose that that area be closed to recreational shooting.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that the particular shooting area in Raymond is about 15 miles away from Lyons and about 30 miles away from Boulder and Longmont, making it a challenge to manage the land and enforce regulations there.
“When you can’t supervise what’s going on, that’s where the problems occur,” Ellis said.
Denver resident Patricia Donaldson purchased a historic one-room cabin in Raymond about four years ago and said she had no idea that the amount of recreational shooting in proximity to her home would be so significant.
“This is just a slice of land that is so peaceful with the river,” Donaldson said. “To have it continually bombarded with these very aggressive styles of shooting at random times when you’re simply enjoying the river and enjoying the peace and quiet. … It’s horrendous.”
At the end of the day, Sanfaçon continues to point to the management plan that was amended in 2019 to outline guidance for recreational shooting and the hope that plans for the Boulder Rifle Club will soon pan out and precipitate the closure of land, including the area near Raymond.
“We still have a solution to the issues that mountain residents are experiencing. If we can build … a public range, more than 80,000 acres in Boulder County will be close to recreational sport shooting,” he said.
“I know it’s not happening as fast as people would like, but that’s kind of where we’re at in terms of the county process,” Sanfaçon added.
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