Lock and Load?

County struggles to find a new location for shooting grounds



Gary Wockner

October 15, 2003


Larimer County sits at a provocative junction in Western American cultural geography. On one hand, the area contains a somewhat densely populated city complete with street-punk gangs, Denver commuters, and yuppie environmentalists. On the other hand, a little drive north, east, or west, and farmers and ranchers emerge, some of them living on land homesteaded by their forbears. It’s a County where the New West meets the Old West, where Kavu meets Carhart, and where the Million Mom March and the National Rifle Association both have strong footholds.


Amidst these paradoxes, another emerges. In Old West fashion, the County has one of the largest per capita sales of hunting licenses in the United States. Couple this with the fact that Colorado has an elk herd approaching 500,000 animals and that the Division of Wildlife is encouraging a call-to-arms to help control these numbers. Unfortunately, in New West fashion, there is no public shooting range for would-be hunters to formally practice shooting or to sight-in a rifle.


“It’s a real problem,” says County Commissioner Kathay Rennels, who exemplifies this paradox. She’s a strong businesswoman, a highly respected County leader, and also a gun owner, hunter, and parent of a state-champion rifle marksman. “And it speaks to the growing urban-rural interface in our County,” she says. “We’ve been working hard for the last three years to find a new location for the shooting grounds, but haven’t yet been successful.”


The former shooting grounds at the Larimer County Landfill was closed in 2000 due to the proximity of guns and houses within earshot and eyeshot of each other. As houses squeezed in around the Landfill – some of them large and expensive and literally right above the site – tensions heightened and conflicts arose. County Open lands Director, Gary Buffington, says, “Noise, the possibility of errant bullets, and costs all plagued the old shooting grounds. Further, it needed badly to be updated, but due to the conflicts, the location was not deemed a suitable long-term solution.”


Soon thereafter a Task Force was created with members from the County, the Forest Service, the Division of Wildlife and other groups. But with the continuing gentrification of the County’s landscape, the Task Force has yet to find a suitable location for the shooting grounds. Many new sights were considered, but all fell away due to conflicts with neighbors. 


As an example of the problem, earlier in 2003 the Task Force agreed on a site at the State-owned Cherokee State Wildlife Unit west of Livermore. But within a few months, area residents including Paul Morgan and Gordon Smith formed the “Friends of Livermore” to fight the proposal. Smith says, “Area residents value their peace and quiet above all else, which was their motivation for moving to such remote locations.  A shooting grounds can be heard for five miles or more.” The group was successful and the Task Force chose not to go forward with the plan.


“The problem,” says Commissioner Rennels, “is that most families now are one or two generations removed from knowing anyone who lived a truly rural lifestyle, and so there is a lack of knowledge of how rural communities used to live. Noise, agriculture, and firearms are all problems attached to this change.” 


“This puts the County in a difficult position,” she says. “I think we have a responsibility. Larimer County and the State get a huge amount of revenue from hunting and firearms-sports in terms of tourism dollars and direct sales. We also support Cooperative Extension and kids’ 4-H programs, both of which have firearms safety, training, marksmanship, and hunting components, and so the County is already involved and committed. We encourage hunting and firearms sports; we have marksmanship in the Olympics. We need a public shooting range.”


One choice for County residents who want to practice or sight-in a rifle is to drive out of the County, back into the open lands of Eastern Colorado. The closest public shooting range, the Pawnee Sportsmens Center, is 50 miles east in Weld County near Briggsdale. Currently, many Colorado Division of Wildlife Hunter Safety instructors use this range for training new students. And like the Old West it exemplifies, the Pawnee Center emerges out of the infinite grass and sagebrush with nary a house, or conflict, in sight.


Another option is to head for the hills into the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest.  According to Lenore Arevelos, a law enforcement officer for the Forest, “There are very few restrictions on firearms use in the Forest. We ask that you stay beyond 150 yards of houses, campsites, or any group activity. Also, shooting is not allowed within ¼-mile of Buckhorn and Stove Prairie Roads. Otherwise, we don’t regulate shooting and we write very few tickets.”


Commissioner Rennels though, thinks practice shooting in the Forest is not a safe alternative. “Its best if it’s done in a formal, safe setting with a proper educational component,” she says. “Young 4-H students in particular need a safe, educational setting.”


Public Forest shooting areas also succumb to another Old West phenomenon – trashing the landscape. An unregulated shooting area near Stove Prairie was so abused that the Forest Service recently closed it. Even worse, in April of 2002, an unregulated area out on the Pawnee National Grasslands was so trashed that volunteers filled a 19-ton dump-truck with debris during a clean-up. Trash included refrigerators, computers, TVs, and VCRs, all shot full of holes.


Yet another option is to join a private shooting club. The Northern Colorado Rod and Gun Club, north of Fort Collins near Owl Canyon, may cost a bit more than a public range, charging $65/year plus requiring a $35/year membership in the National Rifle Association for membership. Gun shop owner and Club president Royce Honeycutt, says the Club is open “sunup to sunset, 365 days a year.” Further, he says, “We don’t have the problems the County has encountered, but the number of calls we get from people who want to shoot or sight-in a rifle is staggering. If the County puts it together correctly, they could do quite well and generate a profit.”


With the gentrification of the County has also come the gentrification of real estate prices, another stickler with the Task Force process. The County’s current estimate to buy enough land for a suitable, buffered site approaches $1 million, and coupled with the costs of building a modern shooting range and staffing, puts the startup costs at around $1.5 to $3 million assuming they can find an agreeable location.


Commissioner Rennels thinks the Task Force will arrive at a solution in the next year that will likely involve a partnership with the County and several other public agencies, and may likely include a private landowner and grants from the 4-H Foundation and the National Rifle Association. Such a partnership, in itself, represents a New West, Old West paradox.  


“Things are changing rapidly,” says Rennels. Indeed. Consider: The rifle season for elk opens next week but you can’t go to the Landfill to sight-in your rifle. On the other hand, on your way to a different range you can stop and get a latte and a New York Times at any of a dozen coffee shops in Fort Collins. Paradoxically, while you read your Times and sip your latte, if you have a permit you can also legally carry a concealed firearm into the same coffee shop. But don’t leave your horse unattended out front of the shop – street-punk gangs have been known to steal them.