By Joel Warner
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At a rally last fall welcoming NRA president Charlton Heston to Colorado, soon-to-be lieutenant governor Jane Norton announced that Colorado was eager to expand its shooting-range business. She vowed that the state was "going to work to identify state-owned land that might be suitable for private gun ranges." And the Department of Natural Resources is making good on Norton's promise.
This month, the DNR revealed a list of possible cutbacks and revenue-stimulating programs that could save millions of dollars. The state is now soliciting input on those proposals, most of which would require approval by the Colorado Legislature. Devised with the help of a Utah consulting firm that was paid handsomely for its input, the "Core Mission Project" calls for cuts of some parks programs, increased usage fees for others, and additional revenue-generating amenities, including video arcades, rental cabins and paid advertisements on park buildings and brochures. It also calls for more shooting ranges.
Lake Pueblo State Park and the old Lowry bombing range are being considered as possible shooting-range sites; according to Laverty, they could be financed through private investment as well as sources like the Great Outdoors Colorado trust and lottery funds.
Although shooting ranges have yet to be hyped in ads encouraging citizens to support nature by buying scratch tickets, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
"We want to be open to different forms of outdoor activities," says Great Outdoors Colorado spokeswoman Chris Leding. "Shooting ranges are something that the board is very open to considering, but we have to take it on a case-by-case basis. We've received a number of proposals that we've declined."
The Division of Wildlife, a sister agency to Parks, is also looking for gun-friendly spaces. Every year, the DOW issues approximately one million hunting licenses, more than a quarter of them to big-game hunters from around North America who show up to thin Colorado's elk and deer herds. At some point, every state resident who holds a license must complete hunter-safety training through the DOW. Some of that training takes place on DOW-operated indoor and outdoor ranges sprinkled around Colorado, including minimal, unmanned rifle ranges in designated wildlife areas near Hot Sulphur Springs and Basalt. But there aren't enough ranges to accommodate all the licensees who need training, and so the DOW is looking to fatten up its facilities.
"We heard from the wildlife commission, which said, 'We want to see the division more involved in shooting sports,'" says John Smeltzer, public-services administrator for the DOW. "I think it's an idea that's been on a lot of people's minds for a long time. We've seen this demand from a public that wants to be able to go out and practice and fire off a few rounds and be back home within a couple of hours. They want to be able to do things in little snippets of time. The challenge is finding facilities that can meet that demand in an area that's increasingly under pressures from population growth."
"The primary goal is having a safe place for people who want to shoot," says Patt Dorsey, area wildlife manager in the DOW's Durango office. "We thought, if there's a documented need for more facilities to provide for an activity that lots of people seem to enjoy, then it's something that we ought to provide."
Both the DOW and Colorado State Parks could get some help from the federal government: Under the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the DOW distributes about $11 million annually that's earmarked for both wildlife-conservation projects and shooting-range construction and improvement. (Pittman-Robertson monies are collected from excise taxes on archery equipment, handguns, pistols and revolvers.)
Tony Fabian of the Colorado State Shooting Association, the state branch of the NRA, sees a need for more ranges in Colorado. They're critical to the survival of the gun industry, he points out, in part because they help instill a lifelong love of firearms in future members of a well-armed militia. The NRA is well aware of this. About four times a year, the NRA's Department of Range Development sponsors range-awareness workshops in cities around the United States. It also lobbies state and federal governments on behalf of those ranges. In 1998, the Colorado Legislature made this state's shooting ranges exempt from noise-related litigation -- as they are in other states around the country -- after the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action lobbied lawmakers.
Fabian and the CSSA, along with the National Shooting Sports Association, have also lent their assistance to the state's quest for range expansion, meeting with members of Governor Bill Owens's staff to discuss logistics and possible locations.
"The governor's office clearly indicated their commitment to getting more, and we've been in touch with them, trying to work on this issue," says Fabian. "The state indicated an interest in finding public land and offering it for lease at a low rate. And the Division of Wildlife has told us, too, that they were trying to find additional land. But everyone kind of ran into the same roadblocks.
"Our organization was working to find individuals or groups willing to take on the economic responsibility of creating and running a range," Fabian continues. "But now there's the sense that we've slayed the budget dragon. We've seen budgets for ranges that are tighter and more viable, and that moves us closer to identifying lands to make it happen."