John Colson: Good call, CPW, on reopening Basalt gun range

John Colson
Hit & Run

All things considered, I’d say state wildlife officials have made the most reasonable decision possible in reopening the shooting range at the Basalt State Wildlife Area, which will come alongside improvements to the range and the hiring of safety officers to be at the range during its open hours.

The agency in charge, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, reopened the range Saturday after it had been closed since early July when two hapless shooters using tracer rounds (which emit pyrotechnics to create rays of light visible to the naked eye) sparked what is known as the Lake Christine Fire.

The fire, which continues to smolder in the upper reaches of Basalt Mountain, has destroyed three homes and scorched more than 12,000 acres of woodsy terrain by the time wildlands firefighters numbering around 600 managed to bring the blaze to about 90 percent containment.

The two shooters, Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, both in their early 20s, face felony arson charges but are free on bonds of $7,500 apiece as they await trial, which could send them to prison for six years each.

The blaze caused an estimated $16.8 million in damages and accumulated firefighting costs, apart from the value of the homes lost to the flames, which all contributed to the filing of felony charges in the case.

Understandably, those most affected by the fire — evacuees who waited anxiously to learn if their homes had been saved, some few people who experienced injuries as a result of the conflagration, government officials tasked with public safety enforcement and an array of others — have loudly called for the range to be permanently closed and/or relocated to some more remote spot away from vulnerable homes and commercial centers.

And that may or may not end up happening as officials begin planning meetings to gauge public sentiments on the issue, with an eye toward making a decision on the underlying issues perhaps as soon as six months from now.

But for now, the people who have used the range for roughly 80 years, safely for the most part, have won the day, largely because CPW officials and others did not want to push hunters out into the woods for target practice in advance of the hunting season.

Though it may have seemed a simple equation to some of the range’s critics — along the lines of “stop the shooting, safety will improve” — it is not that simple. There are other considerations to be taken into account, such as the simple fact that the shooting population in western Colorado is a pretty significant portion of the general population. And whether you like it or not, they have rights when it comes to enjoying their firearms, whether as hunters or as hobbyists.

And another plain-and-simple fact is that hunting season is upon us, which means hunters need to be able to sight in their rifles so they can shoot straight and hit the game they’re aiming at.

Without the range, hunters would be forced either to drive much longer distances to get to a shooting range, or they’d have to simply head into the backcountry and hope to find a spot where they could shoot safely.

And by “safely,” I do not mean only without endangering hikers, dirt- and mountain-bikers, equestrians and others who might be enjoying the same wild country as the shooters.

No, there’s also the danger that another wildfire might be started accidentally, whether by a burning cigarette butt or a spark from a bullet ricochet.

Getting back to the new arrangements at the Basalt range, I like the fact that the emerging compromise has resulted in an agreement that the safety officers at the range will be initially paid for by the Roaring Fork Valley Sportsmen’s Association, according to CPW area wildlife manager Perry Will.

The Sportsmen’s Association, which is a major user of the Basalt range, will get a taste for what it’s like to oversee the range, including having to deal with shooters who sometimes are hostile to any efforts to control their activities.

The Sportsmen’s Association also, presumably, will get a little bit of education about the costs linked to those same activities, which might mean they’ll be a little more understanding when confronted by state officials who are simply doing the job of trying to keep everyone safe, be they humans or wild animals.

The six-month estimate for trying to cobble together a permanent policy for the shooting range, which is certain to be tempestuous at times, also will offer a cooling-down period for those most directly affected by the fire, as well as those who feel their rights to gun use are being threatened.

I guess the best we can hope for is that the steering committee appointed to look into the future of the gun range will be able to hold their talks amicably and in good faith, and that they will come up with a solution that truly satisfied all concerned.

Unfortunately, when gun ownership and gun rights come into conflict with public safety concerns and pushback from the anti-gun crowd, all too often tempers flare and reasoned discourse flies out the window.

Let’s just hope this doesn’t scuttle the committee’s work before it even gets started.

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