Hot lead sears the blue sky, smearing its boom across the atmosphere like horizontal thunder.
It's a beautiful Saturday morning at the Rampart Range Road shooting area. The air is sunburn hot and smells of ponderosa pines. Pikes Peak hovers, gigantic in the distance.
The place is starting to fill, and the blasts come more closely together. Clay pigeons fall like confetti over the shotgun range.
Perry Green has traveled all the way from Denver to spend a day shooting here with his teenage son, Andy. It's a time of bonding the two enjoy.
Gary Davis, a regular, is shooting with his buddy, Ty Swoard, at the rifle and pistol area. This is a great range, Davis says. It's free to shoot, and the view can't be beat. People like him keep an eye out, he says, making sure people follow the rules and picking up some trash.
But even on this pleasant morning, not everyone follows Rampart's rules. Down at the "shotguns only" area, a couple men shoot rifles, apparently unaware that the rifle bullets will travel much farther than shotgun pellets and may land in Williams Canyon below. Hikers and bicyclists aren't supposed to be in that area, but often are.
Just south on Rampart Range Road, people in the Cedar Heights community fix breakfast. A few miles farther, tourists shoot photos of their kids pretending to hoist Balanced Rock at Garden of the Gods. Nearby, others wander into Cave of the Winds.
Brent Botts, the U.S. Forest Service's district ranger, worries that the city is creeping up on Rampart. He's also concerned that Rampart is overused, that people don't always follow gun safety, and that the lead bullets and other trash covering the area endanger the environment. He's conducting environmental studies and looking into safety issues.
The Forest Service may close Rampart; if not, Botts may find a way to better manage it. Or he may leave it as it is, at least for now.
But historically, shooting areas this close to our city don't last forever.
In 1989, district ranger James R. Montoya wrote a concerned letter. Colorado Springs was growing, and as development expanded over once-rural lands, the Forest Service was closing shooting ranges. Problem was, the region still had plenty of gun enthusiasts.
"As those ranges close, there have been few to no new ranges constructed, and most of the shooters who used those ranges are displaced onto National Forest lands," Montoya wrote.
Those lands, he said, were often near people's homes.
"Complaints from residents to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and to the Forest Service about indiscriminate shooting occurring near their homes has increased dramatically over the past few years," he continued. "Residents fear for their family's personal safety as well as for damage occurring to their property."
Forest Service documents from that time also note that the forest's trees were being used as targets, and that sportsmen were leaving large amounts of trash throughout the forest.
In response, the Pikes Peak Ranger District closed much of El Paso County to recreational shooting. (Permissible hunting was still allowed.) Rampart, finished in late 1989, was one of several areas created around that time to accommodate displaced sportsmen.
The new shooting areas were expected to help safety and the environment. They underwent environmental assessments, performed to meet regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency. The assessment on Rampart determined the shooting area would have "no significant impact."
But since then, the city has expanded. According the U.S. Census, the population of Colorado Springs grew by nearly 100,000 people between 1990 and 2006.
As people again moved into once-rural lands, ranges closed. Today, Rampart is the county's only public shooting area on Forest Service land. And it sees plenty of use. The Forest Service estimates as many as 150 people shoot at Rampart on a busy Saturday or Sunday.
With that heavy traffic come consequences.
The orange dirt curves of Rampart Range Road swing jovially, sometimes dangerously, uphill from Garden of the Gods to Woodland Park and beyond.
Aside from the rattle of the washboard sections and the occasional spell of acrophobia, the ride is pleasant. Big overlooks. Lots of trees. Butterflies.
So when you swing into the parking lot, the shooting area shocks the senses a bit.
It's not just the gunshots. Bullets have mowed down many of the trees that were unlucky enough to call this area home.
The grassy hillside hasn't fared better. There's no garbage service here, and even with regular cleanups, the trash piles fast, transforming the ground into a collage of microwaves, computers, TVs, stuffed animals, dolls, beer cans, boxes, furniture all of it shot to Swiss cheese.
It's illegal to litter, but with no supervision, plenty of people use the shooting area as a dumping ground.
"It does look better than normal, I'm sorry to say," explains Green, who's shooting just a couple weeks after a cleanup.
Still, in some spots, piles of discarded shotgun shells are so thick, they make walking an acrobatic feat.
Volunteers team with the Forest Service about four times a year to pick up the trash, usually filling a 20-foot-long dumpster. The process costs the cash-strapped Forest Service $10,000 annually. The local ranger district does not currently have the budget for the kind of cleanup that would truly rid the area of nearly two decades' worth of lead bullets and shells.
That has some people worried.
David Wolverton is president of the Mineral Springs Foundation, which fervently protects the cold springs that give Manitou Springs its name. He says the Rampart shooting area puts those springs at risk.
The logic is simple, Wolverton says. As bullets and shells corrode, lead is released into the soil. That soil travels downhill with erosion and eventually makes its way into the water streaming through Williams Canyon. That water feeds the Manitou aquifer that supplies the springs.
"We're talking about getting into something that's almost irreparable," he says. "I mean, that is a really delicate ecosystem."
The Forest Service, concerned with the potential problem, is performing lead tests in the water and soil. So far, the results show only trace amounts of lead.
Fred Luiszer, a faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder's geological sciences department, has studied the aquifer extensively.
He says there's no need to worry about lead, at least not yet.
"Scientifically, the probability is extremely low that any of the lead would get in those springs," he says. "However ... from a public-relations standpoint, it doesn't look good.
"The lead is there, and if the soil was the wrong kind of soil, and some truck came around the corner and spilled a tanker of acid on the lead, and it was able to get across limestone without being neutralized, and if it wasn't absorbed by organics or clays in the soils or the streambed, there is a really, really, extremely small chance that some of that lead could get into the aquifer and be a problem.
"But your chances of getting hit by lightning, or winning the lottery, or getting bit by shark, are a lot better."
If there is a problem, Luiszer says, it will come after Rampart is closed and the Forest Service wants to use the land for other recreation. At that point, the Forest Service will need to rid Rampart of lead. Otherwise, children could breathe in lead-laced dust that could affect their developing nervous systems.
Aside from some suggested guidelines, the EPA doesn't have a say in how Rampart is run. But if Rampart closes, the EPA would require the Forest Service to clean up lead. Lead remediation is expensive on flatland, but on a hill, it's even pricier. If the downhill slope of the shotgun range at Rampart gets a significant amount of lead in its soil, the Forest Service might have to fork over big bucks to get it removed.
Luiszer says the Forest Service should also clean up all the other chemicals that are likely on-site. The electronics (TVs, computers, etc.) that people illegally use as targets are full of nasty stuff: asbestos, sulfuric acid, even more lead.
For now, however, Luiszer says the place is more of a nuisance than anything else.
"You're hiking around the canyon, and overhead, at the top of the canyon, it sounds like World War III starting up there some days."
Cedar Heights is a picturesque, gated community nestled into the mountains west of Garden of the Gods. You could easily invest a million to live there, and for many people, it's worth it. For all of its high-mountain feel, Cedar Heights is about 15 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs.
But recently, a family dropped its plans to buy a Cedar Heights home, not wanting a shooting area as a neighbor, says Ben Kuckel, president of Cedar Heights Community Association.
The sounds of gunfire irritate some Cedar Springs residents, especially those who live closest to the range. Some have complained to the Forest Service.
Kuckel says his board doesn't have an official opinion on what should be done with the range. But, personally, he knows some residents hear shots from their homes, sometimes late at night.
He can't hear anything from his house, but Kuckel does hear shots when he hikes in the area. In fact, hikers in the popular area of Waldo Canyon can hear the shots.
Kuckel says he's mostly worried that not all shooters are safe. He notices holes in traffic signs and trees far from the range. Kuckel isn't blaming anyone, but he is concerned about stray bullets.
"I'm not opposed to a range," he says. "I just think it's in the wrong place."
"Can't teach common sense'
On June 12, 2005, a man was shot in the arm by a fellow sportsman at Rampart. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office has documented incidents at Rampart since 2003, and this is one of only two that ended with someone getting shot.
But the accident hints at the dangerous screw-ups that can happen when a bunch of people with guns are clustered in a small area without supervision. That's especially true when you consider the fact that some of the people who use the range are drinking.
The few signs at Rampart are mostly there to tell people where they should shoot certain kinds of guns. Shooters are expected to have basic knowledge of gun safety, the No. 1 rule being: Never shoot toward anyone or any area where people might be.
Those kinds of guidelines are sacred to most shooters, but not everyone at Rampart follows them.
"You can't teach people common sense," shooter Davis says. At least, he adds, at Rampart people keep an eye on one another.
Shooting areas that aren't supervised work fine in certain situations, Botts says. But Rampart is so overcrowded that the likelihood of having an accident is higher.
Don Turner, who recently evaluated the site for the National Rifle Association, echoes Botts' concerns. His report notes that Forest Service employees stated that some people fire rifles in the shotgun range, posing a possible threat to others. Other users were seen shooting guns out of their cars. Still others were using ranges improperly, resulting in bullets ricocheting out of control.
In his report, Turner listed some concerns:
"Lateral berms have eroded. Signs are constantly being damaged. Trash volume is extremely heavy. Use of site is greater than design. Safety rules are not being followed. Lack of supervision and demand are exacerbating the design issues," he wrote.
The range would probably be safer if it had a range master, hired to enforce safety rules (and perhaps deter litter). But the Forest Service's budget is too small to hire a range master.
In the past, the Forest Service has entertained bids for companies to run Rampart. Those companies would have supervised it and cleaned up trash for a fee.
Botts was excited by the prospects, but he says companies lost interest when they realized how much it would cost. Those expenses include running plumbing and electricity to Rampart, and paying for pricey insurance.
With no one else stepping up to run the shooting area, the Forest Service is looking for other solutions. If it closes Rampart, Botts says, the Forest Service will seek other areas where it or another entity could set up a range to replace it.
And they're hoping that range might look a little more like the managed, supervised, tidy, private ranges in our area. (See "Nice shot," below.)
Through the scope
Sometime in October, when the Forest Service completes its research, it will open a 30-day public comment period. After that, Botts and other Forest Service employees will look over all the input and determine Rampart's future. A decision could come as soon as November.
Right now, the best option is elusive.
Considering the environmental, safety and encroachment concerns, leaving Rampart as-is might prove irresponsible. Closing Rampart would mean ridding it of these problems, but it also would displace a lot of people and the Forest Service would have to pay for cleaning up the lead.
The NRA's Turner suggests that the Forest Service fix up Rampart and build more local ranges to meet demand. His list of possible upgrades includes new signs, berms, ground leveling and new backstops.
The place should be supervised, Turner says. Rangers could charge a small fee and keep business hours.
As for that trash, Turner thinks the rangers should hire a trash service and develop an environmental stewardship plan that includes monitoring run-off and regularly checking soil pH values.
Of course, Botts has tried to fix Rampart in the past, but his unit didn't have the money to do it alone, and no one was willing to help pay.
It seems a no-win situation, but the Forest Service isn't calling it impossible.
Recently, a "Federal Lands Hunting, Fishing and Shooting Sports Roundtable" was established. The roundtable brings together federal, state and private entities that have an interest in preserving the shooting sports as well as the environment.
As it turns out, Colorado Springs isn't the only city that finds itself in a predicament. As development spreads along the Front Range of Colorado, old shooting ranges close, leaving sportsmen without designated areas for target practice. The roundtable hopes to build more ranges to meet demand.
Jim Goodyear of the Division of Wildlife, which is involved in the roundtable, thinks that diversifying ranges might offer a good solution. There could be low-key, low-maintenance ranges for shooters looking to do a little target practice near their homes. Other ranges could be more advanced and allow people to shoot machine guns and cannons.
Those ranges could be on Forest Service land, county land, private land just about anywhere that works well.
However the future looks, it's likely that the Forest Service will provide some land for ranges but won't pay the full cost of building and maintaining them. Building ranges can be expensive business, especially since the EPA requires a preliminary environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Even the less-expensive study could easily cost $30,000.
Steve Sherwood, the Forest Service's director of recreation for the Rocky Mountain Region, says the Forest Service is increasingly looking for ways to partner with private entities to help cover costs.
That could mean that private shooting clubs or the NRA might contribute to a cost-share agreement on a new range, meaning they'd help fund creation and maintenance.
Another option is a concessionary agreement allowing outside organizations to bid on a proposed range. The winning bidder would manage and maintain the new range on Forest Service land and charge a fee. They'd get to keep most of that fee with a small percentage going to the Forest Service.
Still another option would be for the Forest Service to open a range, charge a small fee, and run and maintain it itself.
But that isn't likely, Sherwood says.
"My instinct tells me we would be better off with someone who really knows how to run shooting ranges doing that under a permit," he says. "Local shooting clubs, the National Rifle Association, you know they know how to build and run shooting ranges."
Even with the necessary funding, building shooting ranges on the Front Range is becoming a challenge. The area continues to grow and expand, and once-empty spaces fill with people.
Which begs the question:
If we replace Rampart now, how soon will we need to replace its replacement?