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Officials see need to restrict exploding targets on public lands

Officials who want to restrict exploding targets on public lands say shooters can be too far away to detect and tend to problems. (Jesse Tinsley)
Officials who want to restrict exploding targets on public lands say shooters can be too far away to detect and tend to problems. (Jesse Tinsley)

Careless shooters blamed for starting wildfires have prompted federal land managers and most state agencies to restrict or ban the use of exploding targets on public lands in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

“Exploding targets are a documented cause of wildfires, and have been associated with at least five wildfires on National Forest System lands since 2012, resulting in more than 15,600 acres burned and approximately $30 million in suppression costs,” said Sarah Levy, Forest Service spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest Region in Portland in the media release for the latest ban on the devices. 

Pacific Northwest Region officials on Tuesday banned all exploding targets year-round from national forest lands in Washington and Oregon, including the Colville National Forest. The closure order expires June 20, 2015, or until rescinded.

The Oregon-based manufacturer of an exploding target on the market for two decades says its product is not incendiary and is being unfairly restricted.

Similar rules already had been enacted, but they vary by agency and state:

• Idaho state law prohibits use of exploding targets, tracer ammunition and other fire-causing materials on state range and forest lands during the “closed fire season,” which generally runs May 10 to Oct. 20.

• U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials in Idaho follow the state law, specifically including exploding targets and tracer ammo in their ban on fire-causing materials on BLM lands from May 10 to Oct. 20. 

• BLM in Washington and Oregon bans exploding targets from spring through fall during the wildfire season. In recent years, the ban has started on June 20, but this year the ban was enacted on June 1.

• Washington enacted a state law in 2009 that bans exploding targets and tracer ammo year-round on state-managed lands.

• In May, the Oregon Legislature unanimously passed a ban on exploding targets and tracer ammunition on state-protected lands during fire season. This ban takes effect next year.

Northern Region Forest Service officials in Missoula have been discussing restrictions on exploding targets but are waiting for a pending national response to the issue, a spokesman said Friday.

“The Forest Service is working to clarify and better define existing regulations that impact the use of exploding targets on national forest system lands,” said Larry Chambers, Forest Service media relations officer in Washington, D.C. ”Our current focus is on educating the public.”

It might be several weeks before agency officials react on a national basis, he said.

Fire investigators have said they suspect exploding targets sparked at least half a dozen wildfires in Washington and Idaho over the past year. 

The chemical explosives in the targets  give shooters instant feedback that they’ve hit their mark from long range.

But an exploding target doesn’t necessarily cause fires, according to Dan Tanner, founder of Tannerite Sports near Eugene.

He said he’s hired an attorney to pursue legal action against Forest Service officials in Portland responsible for the new year-round ban on exploding targets.

“Tannerite is endothermic in nature,” Tanner said. “It’s cold. It doesn’t produce fire, it creates water vapor.

“I’ve been making Tannerite targets for 20 years and you’ve never heard about an exploding target causing a fire until the last four years or so – about the same time that competitors have been trying to get around the patent by using magnesium in their products. Magnesium can spark a fire.”

Tanner said his product “will not start a fire” when mixed and used correctly. The Tannerite website urges shooters to respect federal land regulations.

“I support fire safety precautions, like restrictions on smoking or using chainsaws during periods of high fire danger,” he said.

But banning exploding targets year-round is “over-the-top ridiculous,” he said.

“You can build a campfire anywhere to get warm or cook on in late fall and winter, so why would they single out exploding targets with a ban?” he said.

People can stand by their campfires and tend them, but exploding targets might be hundreds of yards away, said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Madonna Luers, explaining Washington’s year-round ban on exploding targets on state lands.

“I’m here with two little daughters just trying to make a living,” Tanner said. “I’m manufacturing a fun product for people to enjoy that’s safe and legal, but agency people who don’t know what they’re talking about are trying to regulate me out of business.”