Illegal gun recreation persists in area, issue lacks solutions

A shot-up vehicle sits abandoned in a gravel pit on private property off Marathon Road that has been popular with trespassing target shooters. Illegal shooting ranges have caused problems for law enforcement officials this summer.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. owns a lot of land on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Native corporation is the largest private landholder in Southcentral, said Jim Jager, CIRI’s corporate communications director.  

The group owns a parcel of land at Rainbow Drive in the Soldotna area. A few years ago, it received multiple complaints of people shooting guns and dumping trash on the land, and, in response, CIRI plowed a berm to block its land and put up no trespassing signs. 

Gunfire ruined the signs within a couple days, nearby resident Jim Oltersdorf recalled. 

Gun enthusiasts — hunters, recreationalists, Second Amendment supporters — are plentiful on the Peninsula. Those who don’t own land are often searching for makeshift firing ranges. Law enforcement officials are conscious of popular spots and receive many noise complaints from residents. But the legality of firing weapons is nuanced, and landowners tend to fend for themselves. 

On June 17, target practice at the Rainbow Drive parcel ignited a wildland fire. Responders arrived on scene about 10 minutes after receiving a report. The fire had spread about an acre, but the total affected area remained less than that due to the quick response time. 

Fires caused by firearms and target practice are scarce, a once- or twice-a-year occurrence, said Brad Nelson, Central Emergency Services safety officer. It wasn’t the first time, however, people had used the area.

CIRI has visited the parcel since the fire to clean it up and to replace trespassing signs. Its lands are located both on and off the road system. In particular, people regularly trespass on their logging roads. 

A consultant based in Kenai works with CIRI to conduct weekly checks at the parcels of land. The process is never ending, said Dara Glass, CIRI’s land manager. 

“We own so much land that there’s just no way (to keep up),” she said. “Unless we had 100 people checking. Sometimes we visit the lands on a reactionary basis. Other times visits are to areas which we are aware have trespass issues, with repeat offenders, so to speak.”

People can access the group’s land by obtaining specific permits. In fact, their trespassing signs say “access by permit only.” There are permits for everything from berry picking and wood gathering to camping and hunting.

This year, the group declared the entire Kenai Peninsula off limits, because it wanted to give the land a break, Glass said. 

According to the Alaska State Troopers, there are numerous popular areas people use for firearm recreation. West Poppy Lane and Gas Well Road are among them. 

“There’s a couple of gravel pits, a couple of ponds that people visit and engage in these activities,” said Sgt. Robert Hunter. “A lot of the times when we get complaints, we’ll go out there, make contact, make sure they’re shooting in a safe direction, make sure they’re not under the influence. Basically, make sure there are no real crimes being committed.”

Shooting a gun in and of itself isn’t illegal. And a person may have permission from a property owner, but that doesn’t mean everything they’re doing is legal, said troopers’ spokeswoman Megan Peters in an email. 

People have to read the laws pertaining to firearms and land ownership, she added.

In state parks, people may only legally fire weapons for hunting during a permitted hunting season, a Department of Natural Resources representative said.  

The majority of calls the troopers receive are noise complaints, and troopers occasionally are able to reach the registered landowners, Hunter said. Most are disinterested in pursuing trespassing charges.

“That’s how about 90 to 95 percent of the scenarios play out,” Hunter said. 

Most people the troopers contact, he said, are legitimate gun owners; they’re not felons or people under the influence. Rather, they’re parents teaching their kids to shoot or hunters setting their sights for moose season.

Some areas are problematic, however. Gun shells and demolished items are left behind. But due to staffing levels and current call volumes, troopers have little time to go and check these areas. 

CIRI and residents who live close to the popular spots are instead asking would-be sharp shooters to respect property rights and clean up their messes.

“We depend on the public to be a good neighbor, and when they see issues arise, call troopers or 911 and report the incident, and they’ll contact us,” Glass said. “That route is preferable, so the authorities know of the problem immediately. People also can contact me directly, and I’ll try and take care of it. It all depends on the situation.”

Oltersdorf has owned his property near Rainbow Drive for ten years. He said he and his wife hear gunfire day and night. So, when the June 17 fire occurred he thought someone had been shot.

“It was midnight, we heard gunfire,” he said. “To be frank, I thought somebody got shot out there when all the emergency personal were responding to the fire. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all.”

He’s had stern talks with people who fired across the road or over a nearby lake. Homes surround the lake, he said. During other occurrences, he remained inside out of fear that the people wielding the guns were intoxicated.

He also said he realizes CIRI cannot have an armed guard at all properties they own and trooper patrols would be ineffective. 

“The desired goal of dampening the problem, it’s almost futile, because the troopers can make a run out there right now, and nobody’s out there,” Oltersdorf said. “Come Sunday morning, 7 a.m., people are blasting away with semiautomatic gunfire.”

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com

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