Shotgun shells, Shasta cola labels and a broken bottle of Fireball Whiskey litter the ground at mile marker 11.2 along Highway 45 in the Mount Hood National Forest. A baby’s car seat with its bottom ripped out lies next to an old Doug fir, a hole the size of a home printer carved out of its trunk with bullets.
Clackamas River District
Ranger Mike Chaveas, dressed in thick forest green jeans and a tan shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, jogs back from the clearing, holding a paper target in one hand.
“I found this all the way back there,” he says, pointing into the trees, about 100 yards from the road.
About 30 similar sites speckle the west side of the forest, casualties of irresponsible shooters who destroy trees and trash the land. The latest push to curb illegal target shooting started in January.
“The number of close calls that are reported, the number of sites, just seem to increase year after year after year,” Chaveas said.
Legal target shooting
Recreational shooting in National Forests is legal if:
* At least 150 yards from a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation area or occupied area.
* Not shooting across or on a National Forest System Road or adjacent body of water or into or within any cave.
* Not shooting in any manner or place where any person or property is exposed to injury or damage.
Source: Title 36 in Code of Federal Regulation
Target shooting is a legal and traditional use of national forests, so long as federal code and littering regulations are followed. Most shooters follow the laws and respect the forest, often choosing quarries where the rock walls provide safe backdrops. But a few shoot-up electronics and couches leaving behind wasted living rooms and the ground blanketed with bullet casings.
The damage to the forest concerns Chaveas, but his bigger worry is safety.
In the last 1 1/2 years, three forest contractors reported stopping work because of unsafe target shooting. In 2008, a bullet pierced the tent of a father and son at the Lazy Bend Campground
, and Oregon Wild
no longer leads groups to Memaloose Lake. River rafting companies complain the gunshots unsettle customers. U.S. Forest Service guides have turned around tours when shooters ignored pleas to point guns away from the group.
“We have risky jobs – people fighting fires – but those are all risks we can calculate,” Chaveas said. “With shooting, we’ve lost control.”
At mile marker 11.2, Larry Steinmetz, a 75-year-old Southeast Portland resident, sits in an old covered pick-up. He spent the morning at a quarry sighting a rifle for deer season. Steinmetz learned how to handle a rifle as a kid and carries a .357 handgun with him when he hikes. Shooting, for him, is a lifestyle.
The destruction here, however, is not.
“I like the woods clean when I’m hiking,” he said. “It’s unconscionable.”
National forests are open to a range of activities. Along with shooting, hiking, hunting, fishing, rafting and camping, timber companies harvest wood and off-road vehicles race through trees. The Mount Hood National Forest
is split between four ranger districts: Zigzag, Hood River, Barlow and the Clackamas River. The latter covers just under 500,000 acres of the 1.1 million acre forest, and hosts about 2.5 million visitors a year. It sees the most target shooting, likely because it’s the closest to urban areas.
The only sections the forest service closes to target shooting include adesignated ATV area
and a parcel of land just off Memaloose Road
popular with campers and hikers. However, Chaveas says with only two officers for half a million acres, the closures are difficult to enforce and remain some of the most heavily impacted. He and his team are trying to figure out a better way to both teach the law to unsafe shooters and punish those who don’t follow it.
Designed to discourage
“No Shooting” signs, shot up or torn down, are expensive and wearisome to replace for rangers already spread thin. So Aaron Pederson, the district’s recreation manager, is building a better sign: a quarter-inch-thick plate of steel – difficult for bullets to penetrate – anchored in concrete in the ground.
The forest service is also blocking turn-offs with large boulders and covering decommissioned roads with rocks and brush to discourage parking and make it hard to haul in guns and trash. But such practices often just push shooters elsewhere in the forest.
Restoration efforts, led by soil scientist Gwen Collier, have seen some success. In 2009 and 2010 she used about $60,000 in grants from Clackamas County and the forest service to restore 28 sites.
A clearing at mile marker 4.2 is now a series of miniature rolling hills: ditch, earth, ditch, earth — an isosceles triangle of attempted restoration after more than an acre of trees were gunned down. Wild rye grows waist high and saplings peek through the soil, even if shards of glass still glint off the hillsides.
On the right side of the clearing, Collier follows a narrow path, past a freshly crumpled cigarette pack and remnants of neon orange clay pigeons. She sighs and shakes her head. She does not look surprised by fresh litter.
Trash dumped in the forest and shooting often go hand-in-hand. A group calledDump Stoppers
hauls out tens of thousands of pounds of trash each year — including 11,600 pounds from shooting sites since April.
“They take all their stuff up to shoot it, whether its furniture, TV sets, computers. All their wine bottles, everything,” said Robin Wiley, Dump Stoppers’ coordinator.
Moreover, bullet-ridden trees are difficult to safely take down: “They’re so shot up that they are dangerous to work around,” Wiley said. “This spring, we had one come down where we were working.”
Hope for the future
Only seven months into the program, its impact is hard to judge.
“It’s hard to say, really, that there’s been any change in behavior,” Chaveas said.
The program addressing target shooting mirrors efforts against irresponsible campers who leave trash or don’t properly douse their campfires. Rangers are also asking responsible shooters to discourage rogue practices, which has worked to reduce camping issues and problem riders in the motorized vehicle community.
Chaveas said designated shooting ranges are an option, but far from ideal. The forest service and the county would be liable for any injuries, so it would require monitoring. With fewer than 30 full-time, year-round employees –down from more than 100 in the 1990s – Chaveas doesn’t have anyone to spare.
All he knows is he needs something that works.
“We want to be able to protect the rights of people who are target shooting. This is not about limiting access for people,” he said. “But the more we have incidences, especially of these close calls, the more we feel like we get painted into a corner.”