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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

As Washington land managers balance public safety with access, recreational shooters feel left out in the cold

Oct. 23, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 24, 2022 at 2:51 p.m.

John Pierce was thrilled when he moved to Cheney 1½ years ago.

Part of that thrill came from being closer to his children – and grandchildren – but he was also excited to live 20 minutes from the Fishtrap Recreation Area. The 9,000-acre Bureau of Land Management multiuse area allows, among other things, target shooting.

“To me, it’s the perfect area to put a shooting range,” Pierce said.

Pierce is a dedicated shooter. Partly it keeps him sharp for fall hunting seasons, partly he just likes it. But he’s careful about where he shoots, preferring to be far from others. Fishtrap, he said, was the perfect spot, particularly off Miller Ranch Road where he’d park his truck and shoot into the bank of a large butte separating that road from the Sprague Highway.

That is until about a month ago when he noticed large boulders along the road, along with “No Shooting” signs.

“It’s not a small project,” he said Thursday looking at the boulders. “It’s not something you do spur of the moment. I guess the thing that bothers me the most is there was no public notice or discussion.”

Those boulders and signs were placed by BLM managers in hopes of concentrating shooting activity following public safety concerns, BLM spokesman Jeff Clark said.

“People in the past have been pretty much shooting wherever they want at Fishtrap,” Clark said. “We are just trying to discourage it (in certain areas). We aren’t trying to stop it. And encourage it in a safer place that is more contained and makes more sense.”

Shooting is still technically allowed in those areas and Fishtrap’s official shooting zones haven’t changed, Clark said. Managers, however, are trying to direct shooters to Square Butte, west of the Sprague Highway. The restrictions affect a small area and there are still plenty of places available, Clark emphasized.

“What’s the federal land you go shooting on? It’s probably BLM,” he said. “We allow hunting and target shooting almost everywhere. Unless it’s clearly not safe.”

“It’s not in the BLM’s agenda to close target shooting or hunting.”

But shooters, including Pierce, see the restrictions as just the newest in a string of closures and changes, ones that are making it increasingly hard to shoot for free in Eastern Washington. And it raises a larger and thornier question that isn’t unique to shooting: As Spokane and the Western U.S. continues to grow, what’s the appropriate way to manage and regulate traditionally unfettered Western activities?

“I understand people don’t want shooting around their homes. They don’t want bullets flying over their heads,” Pierce said. “But if you can’t shoot at a place like (Fishtrap), where can you shoot?”

Self-inflicted wounds

Target shooting at Fishtrap has been a hot topic, literally, for years. Target shooters have started a number of fires on the BLM land, including a 10,000-acre blaze in 2014. At the same time, shooters aren’t always the best stewards, leaving shell casings strewn about and using signs, trees and almost anything else as target practice.

“Honestly, Square Butte, it’s a trash heap,” Clark said of the main shooting area at Fishtrap. “We clean it all the time and it still looks like garbage and we still don’t shut it down.”

The newest restrictions are due to public safety, Clark said. Northwest of Sprague Highway, DeAtley Crushing has a quarry and plant. Earlier this year, a bullet hit the office building, said Matt Hattrup, the safety director for the Lewiston-based company, and employees found rounds on the property.

“People were setting up targets on the crest of the hill,” he said, adding they have no desire to stop shooting in Fishtrap, but just wanted to deal with that specific problem.

That doesn’t change BLM’s commitment to allowing shooting, alongside other uses, Clark said. Other land management agencies, however, haven’t been so forgiving of bad behavior.

State tightens rules

While BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands in northeast Washington both allow “dispersed shooting,” some of the more popular local shooting spots are managed by state agencies, primarily the Washington departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife. Target shooting is allowed on both agencies’ lands unless specifically closed to shooting.

There has been a string of recent closures. In 2013, Spokane County implemented “no-shooting zone areas” following repeated issues with trash and public safety on DNR county sites.

In March, DNR closed Stonelodge in Stevens County near Suncrest following growing public safety concerns. In May, the agency closed a popular site of Swenson Road, also near Suncrest.

“We understand this is a popular place for target shooting and will inconvenience those who use the site, but as residential development in the area continues to grow, the danger posed by shooting is becoming more apparent,” said Pat Ryan, DNR’s northeast region assistant manager for state lands in a news release at the time.

This fall, DNR closed a shooting site off Chattaroy-Dennison, following a recommendation from the county’s No Shooting Area Advisory Committee.

WDFW is also wrestling with the issue, although WDFW lands are in general “more primitive” than DNR lands, said Dave Whipple, the hunter education division manager for WDFW. Over the decades, he said, dispersed shooters have developed unofficial shooting spots, some of which are good and some of which aren’t. As population grows in Washington and the West, managers have to try and regulate previously unmanaged activities. Compounding the problem, gun sales have been at record highs since the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to more target shooting.

“It’s good to be practiced … and safe. And the only way you can do that is to go practice,” Whipple said. “So where do you go practice?”

One idea may be for WDFW to have dedicated and maintained shooting areas. The agency operates one off Sheep Company Road south of Ellensburg that opened in 2020. The WDFW Commission has discussed the issue and in the future may directly address it, said Eastern Washington commissioner Kim Thorburn.

It’s also a federal topic.

This month, a Utah congressman introduced the “Range Access Act” which would require a free shooting range on every national forest and every district managed by the BLM. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.

“I’m frankly tired of visiting our public lands and seeing shot-up toasters and TVs,” Congressman Blake Moore (R-Utah) told Outdoor Life. “This bill aims to establish appropriate shooting facilities to clean up pollution, promote safe shooting, and hopefully recruit more outdoor recreationists to help fund wildlife management in America.”

While there are issues unique to shooting – public safety being the primary one – Whipple said it’s a discussion relevant to all types of recreation, whether it’s e-bikes, hikers or climbers.

“All of our public lands are going to get more use,” he said. “So this is an effort to get ahead of that.”

A hobby under siege?

At the Fishtrap Recreation Area, Eugene Young and Jacob Garcia are all too aware of these changes. Both men were shooting on Thursday at Square Butte, the area BLM officials prefer shooters use. While it was a weekday, there were about 10 others firing into the butte. Young and Garcia had driven from Spokane that morning to practice for hunting and self-defense.

Both men started coming to Fishtrap after their preferred spot, the Swenson Road area near Suncrest, was closed by DNR in May.

“Suncrest was ideal,” Young said. “That was 20 minutes from where I live.”

Garcia said the continued closures of shooting lands will force people to “start doing more dangerous things.”

While they said they understand the issues and are happy to follow rules and regulations, they feel as if one of their favorite hobbies is under siege.

“I’m happy to oblige by any rules,” Young said. “I just want to be able to do my favorite hobby where I don’t have to travel an hour away.”

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