The Basalt gun range was a simmering community issue for a number of years before last summer’s devastating fire roiled tensions even more. Noise was the consistent problem over the years, and efforts by the Department of Wildlife (the entity previous to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife) and the town of Basalt to address the noise made some differences but did not eliminate it.
Noise and a range of other issues were discussed Thursday, June 6, at a sparsely attended community meeting at Basalt High School which was held by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to announce and discuss recommendations that had been made by a local citizens’ task force who met over a six-month period after last summer’s Lake Christine Fire.
“The premise behind this was to organize a group of concerned citizens that had demonstrated interest in the shooting range and to get a wide variety of perspectives,” noted CPW district wildlife manager Matt Yamashita, who presided over much of last Thursday’s meeting, along with moderator Connor Coleman, a member of the task force.
The task force was asked to evaluate the gun range operations, discuss concerns and make recommendations to the CPW. The group was comprised of local citizens from Basalt and the surrounding area and included George Trantow, Bill Kane and Stacey Craft, who were not in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, and Rob Leavitt, Larry Emery and Charles Spickert who were in attendance and spoke about some of the short- and long-term recommendations they suggested to CPW.
Increasing wildfire mitigation efforts, installing working surveillance cameras with a storage capability of 10 days and having a range safety officer onsite during operational hours, are the main short-term recommendations made by the task force. Longer-term recommendations were to group the public operating hours of the range into three seasons (with suggested hours ranging from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week in the summer to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week in winter); perform further noise studies that may result in reorienting the direction of the shot gun range away from downtown Basalt; and looking at ways for a public/private partnership to completely enclose part of the gun range's operations.
The task force was created after last summer’s fire that broke out on July 3 at the Basalt gun range and consumed nearly 13,000 acres above Basalt, Willits and El Jebel, forced the evacuation of thousands and destroyed three homes. Two young adults, Allison Marcus and Richard Miller, were charged with starting the Lake Christine Fire after Marcus fired a rifle with tracer rounds that ignited brush behind their gun targets. After numerous felony charges were filed against the two, they have agreed to a misdemeanor plea deal and will be sentenced on July 1.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has owned and operated the Basalt gun range since 1940. In 1974, it was more formally developed. Since then, the general public and private shooting groups have used the range to fire pistols, rifles and shotguns. In the opinion of CPW, operating the range keeps gun enthusiasts from firing their weapons in local natural forest areas and on lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management. According to Yamashita, approximately 10,000 patrons use the Basalt gun range annually, demonstrating the need for the range.
The local citizens recommended changes that have already been implemented, changes that will be implemented this summer and changes that must go through a regulatory process with CPW and/or state officials.
“I feel like the breadth of their investigation and study of all the issues was fantastic,” noted Tim Racke, who is on the board of managers for the Roaring Fork Valley Sportsmen’s Association (RFVSA), a private group that leases the shot gun ranges from CPW. “I really felt like they covered the whole topic A to Z and did some real due diligence on alternative site selection.”
Members of the task force were asked to refrain from revealing private discussions of the group and actions with members of the public, media or social media, and one member has objected to this.
A recent email to that member by Mike Porras, public information officer for CPW, objected to that person’s characterization of the request as a “gag order,” noting that it “was not legally binding” and in place because, “We believed keeping the business of the group out of the media, social media, etc. until the appropriate time would help ALL members accomplish their work efficiently and without excessive outside influence and interference.”
Yamashita explained following the meeting that the increased hours came after the task force surveyed local businesses, commercial gun operations and the Basalt Chamber of Commerce. Commercial operators who provide shooting lessons, shooting instruction and shooting courses articulated the need for increased hours, he said.
“Yes, I am in favor of that recommendation,” explained RFVSA’s Racke. “In general, for the hours that you are closed as a public shooting facility, those are the hours that are going to drive people to alternate sites to shoot,” a point also made by CPW’s Yamashita. He noted that public lands including national forests are used when the range is not available to pistol, rifle and shotgun sportsmen.
In line with the task force’s recommendations, CPW has pledged $20,000 for the cameras and storage equipment and has already paid for some of the safety improvements like wildfire mitigation. They have also committed to paying for a shooting range safety officer from July to November of this year, the busiest time of the year and the highest fire danger.
Future funding for that safety officer and to pay for some of the other recommended suggestions will be determined by regional and state officials, but overall funding for CPW is in good shape, noted Dean Riggs, CPW’s deputy regional manager. “This is a high priority for us.”
The town of Basalt does have additional money from its parks and trails fund that could help pay for long-term suggestions like a new enclosed gun range, according to Ryan Mahoney, Basalt town manager.
While two meetings drew 200-300 participants last August (with a majority of them in favor of keeping the range open), the June 6 meeting had fewer than 30 members of the public along with about a dozen state wildlife officers, local police, sheriff and fire officials.
Some in attendance, including a member of the task force, were critical of CPW, the task force process and the recommendations because citizens made similar recommendations in 2008 and 2010, and they were not implemented.
“Some members (myself included) requested multiple times for the establishment of criteria upon which to base any recommendations and ensure proper vetting,” said Stacy Craft.
“Additionally, such criteria would enable the group to undertake appropriate and extensive research and seek out experts whose qualifications properly aligned with the criteria. The fact that no criteria were established seriously undermines the validity of the group’s recommendations, while also effectively preventing appropriate vetting and calling into question the integrity of the process,” Craft said.
Mike Luciano was a member of the advisory board that drafted a resolution in 2010 to have the range closed on Sundays, hire a safety officer and conduct environmental studies. A second resolution that year slightly amended the original resolutionʼs Sunday closure, kept the range open on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and eliminated the range safety officer.
“The (first) resolution was ignored and the range remained open seven days a week,” said Luciano. “Now, CPW tells us the result of a six-month task force is to increase hours of operation at the range to 12 hours a day, seven days a week during the summer? This is insulting to our community. Gunshots heard on three school campuses and in our downtown churches is unacceptable.”
The town and the DOW (the previous CPW entity) did partner together in 2010 on the noise study and afterwards erect a sound enclosure around the area where shooters fire their weapons.
But other elements of the 2010 resolution have not been enacted, such as an environmental study of heavy metals at the site and study of the location of the trap and skeet shooting to see whether or not it should be reoriented to direct sound away from downtown Basalt. According to CPW’s Yamashita, that noise study will be done this summer.
CPW has stated that it will evaluate these recommendations and discuss them with regional and state officials as they move forward with management of the Basalt gun range. Yamashita has asked that any public comments about the recommendations or the process be send to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org