My family and I almost became collateral damage at the end of a pleasant hike through Colorado's Roosevelt National Forest. We were walking on a trail north of the small town of Lyons, when bullets suddenly peppered the trees behind our backs. My 8-year-old son, in tears, flattened himself into the dirt, and though my wife screamed "hikers! hikers!" at the shooters, the bullets kept coming. But here's the real shock: While the shooters were undoubtedly careless and stupid, it was legal for them to fire their guns in our direction.
That should change. I think it is past time for the Forest Service to toughen up its shooting laws.
The Forest Service knows it has a problem. The recreational needs of a growing, active population in the New West are running smack into the freedoms of the past. The problem is particularly bad in Forest Service lands abutting urban areas such as Boulder, the city nearest to this incident. The area around Boulder is laced with foot and bike paths; climbers hang from cliffs; fishermen line streams; and every government jurisdiction has limits on shooting, except one — the Forest Service.
Complaints about shooting are by far the most common in the Boulder District, says James Bedwell, Roosevelt-Arapaho National Forest supervisor. He adds that patrols and sign maintenance are "sporadic at best" because of dwindling resources.
The Boulder Ranger District has one overwhelmed ranger for more than 160,000 acres, and this staffer has the tall task of ensuring the safety of the 1.2 million people who visit the district annually. Federal officials say the Roosevelt-Arapaho National Forest, which includes Boulder, is one of the nation's busiest national forests.
On the afternoon of our near-shooting, it wasn't until the bullets began whistling by our heads that we discovered where they were coming from: The trailhead. I'd hit the dirt with my son, but then got up, ducked low, and ran up a hill to the trailhead. There, I saw three groups firing away down the ridge: the two men who almost killed us, a man and two boys blasting at cans and a half-dozen men dressed entirely in black, wearing capes and firing automatic weapons blindly into the woods.
The shooters who almost got us were firing at targets they'd nailed to trees in a grove above the trail. Any bullet that missed the targets and trees could have hit hikers like us. The gunmen had an excuse — of sorts. Over the years, signs identifying the trail and warning against shooting had been riddled with bullets and ripped down.
I got the license number of the men who shot at us and reported it to the Boulder County sheriff's office. But the deputy I talked to said shooting is legal in a national forest and common in the area. Forest Service officials backed him up; it is even legal to fire into a hiking trail as long as it is unoccupied at the time.
Shooting is traditional on Forest Service lands and a "hot-button item," says Christine Walsh, Boulder District ranger. It is a use that rangers are not about to quickly change. A few Forest Service areas near major cities have small area-specific restrictions, but there are no national limits. The Boulder District is beginning a review that could lead to some limitations, but it will take at least two years. Meanwhile, the system favoring shooting remains.
Nearly as galling as the fact that my family could have gotten legally shot on a hike is the stupidity of these riflemen. I grew up with guns and recall a family photo of me at 8 years old, blasting away with my father's handgun, along with my 5-year-old sister, in a cute little dress, firing a .22 rifle. We were at a rugged hunters' range outside a California desert town where we lived. But we could clearly see where our bullets went — unlike the guys who nearly shot us.
Inside the Boulder District, there is one well-known though unofficial target range, a few miles north of Boulder. Shooters have lugged in refrigerators, computer monitors, and TVs for targets, and this misuse of public land has gone on for 20 years, rangers say. That's long enough for a cleanup program to have sprung up, not run by shooters but by others offended by the waste. Last year, two dumpsters full of shot-up trash were picked up.
Unless the Forest Service toughens its national regulations, shooting will continue pretty much at will on our publicly owned land. I guess people will have to trust to luck to avoid injury or death at the end of a sunny afternoon hike.
Jeff Johnson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Boulder and is a Ted Scripps fellow at the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.