Updated: July 21, 2009 at 12:00 am
Responding to a fatal accident last weekend at the South Rampart Shooting Range , the U.S. Forest Service closed the popular, but unsupervised target area indefinitely on Tuesday.
Pike National Forest Supervisor Bob Leaverton called the closure temporary, but barbed wire and cement barriers being put up this week will ensure nobody will use El Paso County’s only public shooting range for the foreseeable future. The Forest Service plans to convene a panel of range users to “maybe ask some hard questions about the accident itself and what could be done differently to prevent this in the future,” Leaverton said in a conference call with reporters.
“I think the tragic nature of the accident itself, along with the heavy use, concerns me deeply,” he said.
Otis Freison, 25, of Aurora, was shot in the chest at the range on Saturday. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has said the shooting was accidental, and occurred when someone in his group was removing bullets from the weapon. The 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will determine if charges will be filed.
The shooting range, on Rampart Range Road above Garden of the Gods in Pike National Forest, is used by 40,000 people a year. It was established in 1990 and has been plagued in recent years by trash, drinking, heavy use and safety issues. Officials said Saturday’s incident was the first fatality at the site.
The Forest Service considered closing the range in 2007, but officials instead opted for physical improvements, including new berms and backstops to prevent bullets from winding up in water below the range. Tests showed no lead contamination in streams.
Other measures — a permit system and supervision of the range — were too costly, said District Ranger Brent Botts. Officials said the range will remain closed through at least the fall.
“People are going to possibly sight their rifles and guns for hunting season. It’s really an awkward time to be doing this,” Leaverton said.
Asked if deficiencies at the range may have led to the shooting, he said, “Nobody’s saying that, but like all accidents, I think it’s important for us to take a look at what we have up there in relation to what went on and ask some hard questions.”
Dane Nowels, president of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition, was disappointed to learn of the open-ended nature of the closure.
“The history of what the (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service does is pretty dismal when it comes to seeing anything reopened,” said Nowels. “If the BLM or Forest Service closes a trail, for example, it’s almost certain that it will never be reopened. I would expect to see a similar result from this.”
Rather than closing the range, he would like to see it staffed and supervised. He noted that much of the national forest in El Paso County is closed to recreational shooting.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa was also disappointed the Forest Service is closing the range and said he wishes the federal agency could have found funds to provide a range officer.
But he acknowledged the growing problems of safety and trash there. While he did not know if a range supervisor would have prevented Saturday’s death, he said the incident was probably the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”