Ten years after the U.S. Forest Service installed the South Rampart Range Shooting Area as a haven for gun enthusiasts, the landscape is trashed, littered with spent casings and old refrigerators, TV sets, and a bounty of "targets."
And at least one man -- himself unwittingly tagged as a target during a recent hike -- believes that things are out of control along much of the stretch of Rampart Road, a road that meanders west from Colorado Springs through Forest Service land up to Woodland Park and beyond. While gun enthusiasts are supposed to be restricted to the unstaffed shooting range, they don't always follow the rules. And the result, warns Colorado Springs resident Randy Griffith, could be deadly.
"People's lives and their safety are in jeopardy," said Griffith, who rockhounds for a hobby and said he often heads up Rampart Road to look for specimens. One early March Sunday, Griffith was approximately 3 1/2 miles below the designated shooting range and had been hiking for about five minutes when shots began whizzing past him.
"It scared the heck out of me," Griffith said. "Bullets came easily within 15 feet of me. I hit the ground and heard them -- voof, voof, voof -- going off over my head."
Griffith said he yelled out that he was in the woods, but the firing continued. Eventually, it ceased, and he made his way back out to where his car was parked along Rampart Road. He heard the gunfire again, and spotted the man, who was shooting into the woods with a pistol. Griffith said he confronted the shooter and told him that discharging the firearm was prohibited in the area, that the gun range was several miles away and that the man had come close to killing him.
Copping an attitude
"I was upset and I told him he needed to stop firing the gun. There was a family -- a mom, a dad, a kid and a dog who had been in the same area where I was hiking, and that was my main concern," Griffith said. "[The shooter] kind of copped an attitude, so I stopped another car and asked to borrow their cell phone so I could call the police."
But 911 dispatch was unsure who had jurisdiction in the area, and eventually transferred the call to the Colorado Springs Police Department, Griffith said. The shooter, meanwhile, had gotten into his car and driven away, though Griffith wrote down his license plate number and vehicle description.
Forty minutes later, Griffith said, a Colorado Springs cop arrived on the scene. The officer told him that Rampart Range Road, in National Forest, is not in his jurisdiction, but that he had encountered the shooter in his car as the cop was driving up the road. The cop, whose name Griffith did not record, said that he briefly interviewed the man, but indicated that the shooter's firearm was legal and he was not issued a citation for illegally discharging the weapon.
The cop indicated that if Griffith wants to file a complaint against the man, to do so with the county.
Griffith later went back to the spot and found the shells from the gun, a 40-caliber.
"Someone is really going to be hurt up there," he said. "The county really needs to be patrolling the area better."
Fine and jail time
U.S. Forest Service recreation staff officer Frank Landis said the South Rampart Range Shooting Area was built in 1990 after the agency closed the rest of the travelways west of Colorado Springs to recreational shooting because of the proximity to an urban area.
Several agencies pitched in to build the shooting range, including the Wild Turkey Federation (a shooting club), the U.S. Army, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which contributed $10,000.
"The idea was to give 'em a place to shoot rather than have them out there shooting [everywhere]," Landis said. The affected area begins west of Monument and stretches throughout El Paso County in its entirety, west into Teller County and including Gold Camp and Old Stage roads.
Signs are clearly posted along Rampart Range Road, noting that shooting outside of the range is illegal. Violators are subject to a fine of as much as $5,000 and face jail time for up to six months. However, Landis did not know how many people have been issued citations for illegally discharging their firearms in the mountains west of the city. Nor, he said, does he keep statistics on the number of injuries or deaths that have occurred along Rampart Range Road or elsewhere in the restricted shooting area.
The Forest Service contracts with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to patrol the area. Landis said they generally increase patrols on weekends and holidays, but refused to reveal whether the area is routinely patrolled.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that," he said. "It varies tremendously, and it's such a vast area, as you can imagine."
A total disaster
Landis said he is well aware of the problems stemming from the shooting range, however, most notably that the area is trashed. People take their old TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, bottles and countless other "targets," pump them full of lead and then leave their trash strewn around. "It's a total disaster up there," Griffith said.
Landis said a volunteer group pitches in to try to clean up the site, but "it flat out is not enough."
"The problem we have there is, it's an unmanaged, unstaffed facility, so people will go up there and users do not take responsibility; that's the bottom line," he said.
Twice in the past six years, the Forest Service has asked private companies to submit a bid to staff and manage the facility, but, because of the volume of trash and the high insurance costs, has gotten no offers. The Forest Service, Landis said, spends about $8,000 to $10,000 every year trying to clean up the area.
"What we're trying to do is work with volunteers and an organized group to go up there and clean the area and educate the users on proper range etiquette and shooting," he said.
Notably, the Forest Service is charged with managing and maintaining the beauty of national forests and grasslands and, according to its Web page, "to help people share and enjoy the forest, while conserving the environment for generations yet to come."
Landis conceded that the Forest Service is in violation of its own rules by allowing the continued destruction by gun enthusiasts at the South Rampart Range Shooting Area.
"Our concern is, if we close [the range], then we will have shooting ranges illegally all over the place," he said.