Shooters will return to the Farragut State Park gun range Saturday for the first time since late 2006.
A legal fight over noise and safety that closed the state shooting range the past six years isn’t quite over, with opponents hoping to limit the number of shooters allowed and how much of the range reopens.
For now, the 100-yard lane will be open two Saturdays a month with a cap of 500 visits a year. A judge will decide in the coming months whether to lift that cap.
Kootenai County 1st District Judge John Mitchell on Wednesday lifted his injunction that barred the Idaho Department of Fish and Game from operating the range, which opened in 1942 as part of the World War II naval training station at Lake Pend Oreille.
Hunters and sport shooters are eager to return to Farragut, said Dave Leptich, the Fish and Game manager of the Farragut Wildlife Area.
“I think the park’s phone and my phone have been ringing off the hook,” Leptich said. “There’s a lot of interest in seeing this reopen and be available to the public.”
Bryan Helmich, of Hayden, hopes to be one of the first on the range Saturday. Helmich, who retired from Fish and Game two years ago, is a hunter who said he’ll use the range to sight his rifle and do some target practice.
“We have a limited number of ranges in the area, and they can get crowded,” Helmich said. “And I’m looking forward to having Farragut as a place that’s inexpensive and accessible to me.”
The former Fish and Game regional habitat manager predicted Farragut would be heavily used. “I can tell you with assurance that there’s more demand for the range than 500 shooter-days will support,” he said.
The range west of Bayview was closed by court injunction in early 2007 after nearby homeowners sued to stop Fish and Game plans to expand the facility. Citizens Against Range Expansion raised concerns about excessive firearms noise and the danger of errant bullets.
The state spent $260,000 to improve safety and reduce noise at the range, but Mitchell kept it closed, ruling that some rounds would ricochet off the rock-filled range floor and could fly over newly installed berms. The judge also found that a 2008 state law setting a uniform noise standard for outdoor ranges was unconstitutional.
The state Supreme Court reversed that decision in November and ruled that Fish and Game had complied with Mitchell’s conditions to reopen the range up to 500 annual visits.
While the noise issue is settled, safety remains a reason to keep the cap on use and prevent other lanes from reopening, said Harvey Richman, the lawyer for the group that sued. Richman said he soon will file a motion arguing that the District Court has evidence in hand that justifies keeping the 500-visitor limit.
“Bullets can and will leave the range. It’s just that simple,” he said.
The state lowered the 100-yard range, built a 25-foot-tall backstop, added side berms 12 to 18 feet high to muffle noise and contain bullets, and installed overhead safety baffles. The money came from hunting and fishing fines, timber sales and National Rifle Association grants.
“It is the safest range and the best at containing bullets that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Helmich said. “It is as safe a facility as you can possibly make.”
The 50-yard and 200-yard lanes can be made just as safe as the 100-yard lane is now, he added.
A court hearing scheduled for Sept. 30 will give Mitchell an opportunity to weigh arguments for lifting or retaining the cap on use. But that likely won’t be the end of the legal wrangling.
“Regardless of who wins after Sept. 30, we will be back in the Supreme Court. On that you can rest assured,” Richman said.