A 2016 report released by Los Padres ForestWatch identifies unregulated target shooting as one of the most serious threats to natural resources and public health and safety in the Los Padres National Forest. The report recommends that the U.S. Forest Service close the forest to target shooting, consistent with how the other three national forests in southern California are managed.
The report – titled “Forest in the Crosshairs: The Environmental, Health & Safety Impacts of Target Shooting in the Los Padres National Forest” summarizes the results of our multi-year investigation encompassing more than one million acres of public land in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Kern counties.
We found 94 dispersed target shooting sites throughout the forest, places where shooting enthusiasts practice their marksmanship using informal targets ranging from paper and clay, to household appliances and furniture. The trash and items are abandoned, and the sites are littered with shotgun shells, lead bullets, and other hazardous items. Many of these shooting sites are within footsteps of fragile waterways and popular campgrounds, trails, and recreational hotspots.
Unmanaged target shooting can cause serious impacts to the environment, human health, and public safety. In particular, there has been a growing concern over the accumulation of lead ammunition at shooting sites. Lead – a highly toxic metal – can leach into the soil and contaminate nearby rivers, streams, and groundwater, causing long-term effects on environmental and public health.
Other consequences of unmanaged target shooting include trash and litter left behind at shooting sites, vandalism and graffiti, wildfires and other public safety hazards, damaged and dead trees, and wildlife poisoning.
According to data provided to ForestWatch by the U.S. Forest Service, target shooting has caused 53 wildfires in the Los Padres National Forest between 1992 and 2016, burning a combined total of 74,478 acres. When certain types of bullets strike rocks or other objects, they can throw sparks that ignite surrounding grass or brush and quickly spread.
Los Padres officials first expressed concern about unmanaged target shooting in the 1970s. While other forests in southern California adopted forest-wide bans on target shooting, the Los Padres continued to take a hands-off approach until 2005, when the Regional Forester – the top forest official in California – ordered a “fundamental change in policy” and ordered the closure of the forest to target shooting. Under the new policy, a handful of formally-managed shooting ranges could continue to operate, following the model of the other three southern California forests.
Despite the Regional Forester’s 2005 directive, forest officials have not taken steps to formally implement the ban, allowing target shooting to continue. ForestWatch formally requested that the Forest Service implement the ban in 2008, but the Forest Supervisor at the time denied the request but promised that it would be addressed within five years.
The report recommends that the Forest Service implement the 2005 mandate to close the forest to target shooting and formally establish a handful of well-managed shooting ranges. Other recommendations include using volunteers to clean up shooting sites once the closure order is in place, remediating contaminated sites, increasing law enforcement presence in key areas, and pursuing new funding opportunities to ensure that the agency has the resources necessary to properly address this problem.