Target practice at Utah Lake is harming public land, leading BLM to consider expansive ban

Associated Press

Rampant target shooting has scarred public lands with spattered paint, bullet holes and litter. It has caused wildfires, erased ancient rock art and even forced school kids to duck for cover.

That's why the Bureau of Land Management is considering prohibiting target shooting on 12.5 square miles on Utah Lake's western shore. In exchange, a gun range would be established on about one-quarter of a square mile.

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Since 2012, target shooting has been banned on 1.5 acres in the area after the problems began mounting as nearly 50,000 people a year came to fire off rounds at makeshift targets, said Kevin Oliver, the BLM's West Desert District manager.

The area has long been a hot spot for target shooting, but it became problematic as the towns of Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain grew and shooters increased.

Officials documented 79 fires started by target shooting from 2002 to 2011. Several homes were hit by stray bullets. In one incident, school kids taken there in a school bus were forced to dive to the ground in fear after hearing gunfire nearby, Oliver said. Oliver said he remembers driving by and seeing rows of shooters lined up in front and behind each other.

"It screamed of a safety concern," Oliver said.

Near Saratoga Springs, the lakeshore is littered with gun detritus, and people have been shooting paint cans set atop rocks covered with ancient petroglyphs. State, federal and private land in the area is home to illegal dumps, stray bullets and strafed appliances, trees and rocks.

The BLM hoped for voluntary compliance, but the signs the agency put up to educate people were shot up.

Homeowners in the area have been complaining and asking for a plan to curtail the shooting, Oliver said.

Oliver thinks the proposal to protect a large swath of land while creating the shooting range offers a perfect solution. He offers as evidence that only one fire has been started by target shooting the 2012 closure of the small area.

"If you are going to have a lot of people that need to shoot, it just makes sense that they go to a shooting range," Oliver said.

The problems around Utah Lake reflect growing conflict between target shooters and others using public land across the West.

Shooting is legal on most public land administered by the BLM. Oliver's office oversees 3.2 million acres in Salt Lake, Tooele and Utah counties, and only about 3 percent of that is off-limits to target shooting.

The BLM expects to issue its decision next summer. After a public comment period, a final ruling would be announced by the end of 2016.

Property owners near public land say safety is a concern.

Lisa Lowery lives on the west shore of Utah lake and says she has counted nine bullet holes in her home, including one in a bed. A round also passed between Lowery and her husband while they were outside the home before hitting a window, she told The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1K2LrFA ).

"This is not a gun-rights issue. It's a personal-responsibility issue and common- sense issue," Lowery said. "If two bullets are hitting the small profile of the house each year, how many are crossing the highway and reaching the lake?"

Utah County Undersheriff Mike Forshee agrees that broad closures are needed, though he thinks people should still be allowed to hunt on the land.

"We can't enforce without definable boundaries," Forshee told the Tribune. "If you say, 'You can't shoot here, but if you go 30 feet over there you can,' that's not right. You should be able to shoot, but we should able to protect it."

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com