Basalt gun range meeting

More than 300 people listen to comments Tuesday night during the first of two meetings at Basalt High School on the future of the local gun range where the Lake Christine Fire was ignited on July 3. The vast majority of the crowd indicated support for keeping the range where it is and reopening it soon. The second meeting will be held Monday.

If a majority of those who gathered for a community meeting Tuesday night had their way, the Basalt shooting range where the Lake Christine Fire started seven weeks ago would reopen fairly soon, in time for hunters to sight in their weapons before the upcoming fall hunting seasons.

Public comments and applause during the first of two meetings on the gun range also suggested overwhelming support for keeping the gun range where it is in lieu of relocation. The meetings, hosted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, are being held in the Basalt High School auditorium. The second one is scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m.

Speakers who advocated for moving the range farther away from populated areas of the midvalley such as Basalt and El Jebel, based on fire safety and noise concerns, were a clear minority. A few were even booed after they spoke, even though the facilitator hired by CPW to manage the meeting stressed several times that the audience focus on solutions and civility.

The solutions offered by shooting-range supporters included better supervision of the facility, which is located on state recreational land, and safety mitigation measures such as fire alarms, fire-suppression equipment, better signage and enclosed target areas.

The meeting got underway with questions to a panel consisting of officials representing the state wildlife department, the U.S. Forest Service, town of Basalt government and the Basalt fire department. The Q&A panel was followed by statements from two “stakeholders” — one, a representative of the Roaring Fork Valley Sportsman’s Association, which has a lease to operate part of the range; the other, a midvalley resident who represents an informal homeowners group seeking to have the range relocated.

CPW area wildlife manager Perry Will noted that the area where the range is located has seven decades of history as a place for shooters. Basalt resident Steve Chase asked him a rhetorical question: If there were no shooting range in the area, but one needed to be built in the valley to serve the overwhelming need, “Would it be placed where it currently exists?” 

“In an ideal world, if we had do-overs and could start again, maybe not,” Will said. “But that’s what we’re left with. That range has been in existence, and yes, Basalt has grown around it, there’s no question. The population of Basalt has grown. It is what it is. But in a perfect world, could there be a better place? Sure.”

Another valley resident, Chris Wyckoff, said he’s been using the range for many years. He asked whether Forest Service and CPW officials have concerns about what might happen if the range were shut down — whether it would send hundreds of hunters into public lands to sight in their rifles in lieu of using a safe facility.

Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, responded that when shooters don’t have a safe gun range to use, they go out into the forests.

“They take televisions, refrigerators and everything else and they shoot at them to use as targets,” he said. “In some areas of the state, it’s a real problem. …Where we have areas that have a safe shooting area, we have less problems with the trash, safety, and in the case we’re all acutely aware of, fires. I don’t know what the answer is, but one of the things I’ve said to [CPW] is, whatever you do, just consider the impacts that could affect the public land around us.”

Art Chandler, who said he lives in the Fryingpan Valley and has been using the range since 1980, asked officials if they’ve identified any property “within a reasonable distance from Basalt” that could serve as a new location for a shooting range. 

CPW northwest regional manager J.T. Romatzke said any change in location would not come cheap. A new facility would have to be built and the old one would have to be remediated for environmental issues, mainly lead from bullets.

“This is a solid place we have now, but if there’s a place to move it, that’s great,” Romatzke said. “I think one of the challenges is … we could probably find a place, maybe even on public land, but at what point in time, in 10 or 20 or 30 years, do we have a commitment that there won’t be houses close to that?”

Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney noted that Town Council would like to see options for a new location explored. “The issue is, if you find a place that’s next door to people who already live there, they aren’t going to be super-excited about that,” he said.

Mahoney added that he’s started conversations with CPW officials about finding other public land in the valley for a range that’s farther away from Basalt. He said he believes there’s a need to go beyond the two community meetings this month that are hosted by the state wildlife department, in order “to get meaningful public input.” The town has no jurisdiction over the nearby shooting range.

Basalt Fire Deputy Chief Cleve Williams pointed out that if the range is moved, nothing can stop shooters from using the former location for target practice, given that it’s state forest land, legal and available for such purposes. He received a big round of applause.

In other remarks, Romatzke noted that shooting range is fully intact: “We could open [it] today.” In addition, Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson suggested that the range shouldn’t reopen until the fire district figures out a way to keep incidents like the Lake Christine Fire from occurring.

After the first hour, the floor was opened to the crowd to offer comments limited to 60 seconds each. Nearly all of the dozens who spoke identified themselves as Roaring Fork Valley residents. 

Many suggested the Lake Christine Fire was the result of negligent gun users acting foolishly — “dumb, bad behavior,” as one man put it — and not a reflection of the typical range shooter who behaves responsibly. Two young adults are facing felony charges in Eagle County District Court, having been formally accused of starting the fire on July 3 by illegally using tracer bullets during Stage 2 fire restrictions. 

Some pre-teens and teens spoke in favor of reopening the range. Boy Scout troop leaders talked of the positive difference the range has had on local youths who have learned how to use guns correctly.

Members of the Basalt homeowners group tried to state the case for moving the range away from populated areas of the midvalley. They noted that the shooting range is less than 2,000 feet from downtown Basalt; that lead from the site may be affecting streams in the area; and that the Lake Christine Fire was not the first such incident arising from the local range — a fire started there in August 2012, but was soon suppressed.

“Nobody else has a gun range [so close to] their downtown … it’s weird,” said resident Stacey Craft.

She and others on her side say they aren’t against gun rights — they believe a better solution exists than simply reopening the existing range so close to a family-oriented, growing community.

Mike Luciano, who represented the homeowners during the “stakeholder” portion of the meeting, returned to the microphone during public comments to try one more time to sway his dissenters.

“Solutions, solutions, solutions — it’s gonna come through communication,” he said. “That’s our goal.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.

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