Eagle County officials discuss Basalt shooting range options in aftermath of Lake Christine Fire
EAGLE — Fire restrictions have been lifted across the White River National Forest, and the Gypsum Shooting Sports Park is back to regular operations, but officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife remain leery about reopening the Basalt Wildlife Area shooting range.
The range was ground zero for the Lake Christine fire — which burned 12,588 acres and caused hundreds of evacuations when it blew up in early July — and that’s the reason for the caution.
“My goal is to do what’s right for the county and for Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” said J.T. Romatzke, Colorado Parks and Wildlife northwest regional manager during a meeting this week with the Eagle County commissioners. “We have a facility that could open tomorrow. But is that the right thing to do?”
Romatzke noted Colorado Parks and Wildlife has conducted public meetings regarding the range operation, and the state agency continues to study the issue.
Given the opportunity to weigh in on the matter, Commissioner Jill Ryan offered a blunt assessment. She noted that last summer, three wildfires that broke out in Eagle County originated at shooting ranges.
“It simply can’t happen again,” Ryan said.
“That’s our view, too,” Romatzke responded.
Officials at the town of Gypsum and members of the Eagle Valley Rod & Gun Club Board ultimately decided it was safer to have a supervised shooting range open for the public as hunting season approaches. With the range closed, they worried that hunters would disperse out into the forest to sight in guns for the upcoming rifle seasons. The Gypsum groups reasoned that a supervised and dedicated gun range open was a preferable alternative.
That argument has been echoed in Basalt. A couple of weeks ago, a crowd of about 250 people gathered at Basalt High School.
“It was very predominately a pro-range crowd,” said Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
That was just one example of the outreach Colorado Parks and Wildlife has launched regarding the Basalt shooting range, Romatzke said.
“I haven’t heard anyone say ‘close the range.’ I have heard a lot of people say ‘move the range,’” Romatzke said.
Ryan asked if the location of the Basalt range is a concern because it is so close to town. Will noted that in normal conditions, unlike the hot, dry and windy weather that fueled the Lake Christine fire, the range is well located.
“In normal conditions, at most it (the Lake Christine fire) would be a two- to four-acre fire,” Will said.
Romatzke said as Colorado Parks and Wildlife looks for ways to make the range safer, one of the suggestions is to simply make sure people are aware of dangerous and improper behavior.
“I can’t criminalize recreational shooting,” Romatzke said. “People shoot safely every day.”
Because the suspects in the Lake Christine fire were shooting prohibited tracer rounds, the commissioners asked if more shooting range supervision was an option.
“I am just assuming that you don’t have the staff to sit around all day to monitor the range,” Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said. But she asked if there was a working model where volunteers could help ensure shooting safety at the range.
“That model is already in place in Gypsum,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife wildlife manager Craig Wescoatt said. He noted the range has a supervisor who lives on site and an active board that monitors the range for safety.
Will noted that the public’s safety suggestions include everything from having signup sheets at the range to finding an entirely new location.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has hired a consultant to help collect public comment and then compile a report. From there, the agency will make decisions regarding the Basalt shooting range’s future.
“This is a really complex debate,” Romatzke concluded.