It used to be common to find space heaters and other appliances riddled with bullet holes at the 17-Mile area. An intensive cleanup and education effort led by BLM law enforcement ranger Chuck Ward has transformed the site into a much cleaner and safer place for target shooting.
The 17-Mile area north of Billings has long been popular for target shooting. For many years, it was also dumping ground for everything from shell casings to refrigerators. Periodic cleanups helped, but it would only be a day or two before trash started piling up again. Users were unwilling to take responsibility, claiming that the garbage was there when they arrived. The dismal pattern seemed destined to continue.
When some livestock were shot and killed on adjacent private land, however, it was evident that the problems were not limited to the 17-Mile site and that a new approach was needed. The BLM hosted public meetings to gather comments and suggestions. While some people recommended closing the area completely, others, including Billings Field Office Law Enforcement Ranger Chuck Ward, believed that BLM could fix what was wrong and keep it open.
The BLM started by closing the area for a two-week cleanup in early September 2006--right before hunting season when hunters wanted to sight in their rifles. People grumbled about the closure, and only a few stepped up to help with the cleanup. In those two weeks, a couple dozen volunteers removed 50 cubic yards of trash from an area that gets 3,000 visitor-days a year.
When the 17-Mile area re-opened, Ward parked his rig at the entrance and greeted every vehicle that came in. He made sure that every group had a copy of the Billings Field Office’s shooting safety brochure, and let them know that targets were limited to steel, paper, and clay pigeons. He also made it clear that users were expected to pick up all their target materials and shell casings before leaving. The standard was pack-it-in, pack-it-out, with zero tolerance.
“When we re-opened, I was there,” said Ward. “They were coming into my territory instead of me entering theirs, and for the most part, people were glad to see me there.”
People who arrived with appliances, glass bottles, paint cans, pumpkins, furniture, pallets, and such were told to take them back home. Shooters who seemed somewhat careless, young, and inexperienced, or who had AK 47-type rifles were more carefully monitored. Every hour or so, Ward would drive by all the shooting stations and do compliance checks. All of it was done with the goal of creating allies in keeping the site clean and safe. The few citations he issued were given to people who had previously been advised of the policies.
“My goal was to educate, not to hammer people,” he said. “I wanted them to be on our side.”
The motivation was there. A similar site known as the 8-Mile Area had been closed, cleaned up, and sold several years earlier because of similar issues, so the shooting public knew what was at stake.
For the next several months, BLM law enforcement was present at 17-Mile at least one day every weekend. They handed out thousands of brochures. On some days Ward talked to as many as 300 users.
Not surprisingly, individuals who were prone to litter even after the initial contact and brochure distribution also had other criminal issues. BLM rangers made four arrests for felons in possession of firearms. FBI agents made one as well. The county sheriff and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also became involved with enforcement. As the word spread that criminals had a good chance of being arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison and lose their guns, they started to stay away from 17-Mile.
Ward recruited Robert Carns, a volunteer from the cleanup effort, to help monitor 17-Mile. In an extremely cost effective arrangement, Carns spent one full day each week at the site in exchange for mileage reimbursement. In addition to talking with users and handing out brochures, he removed a pickup truck load of trash every week.
These efforts worked. Public behavior at the site changed. People who resented the law enforcement presence and having to comply with the rules stayed away. Responsible shooters and family groups returned, enjoying the cleaner, safer environment. Members of the public started calling Ward to report violations in progress and suspect vehicle information. Shooters began to clean up after themselves and hold each other accountable.
Besides enforcing the rules, BLM personnel went out of their way to give users a good experience at 17-Mile. By helping shooters with malfunctions and other firearm issues, and loaning target stands and other equipment, BLM law enforcement earned the site users’ respect and appreciation. Additionally, BLM equipment operator Rick Ekwortzel graded the adjacent road and cut a ditch and berm in front of the shooting lanes, further deterring people from hauling in large items. Users are enjoying the ditch and berm and say it should have done years earlier.
The turnaround at 17-Mile took about ten hours a week of ranger time for two and a half years. The expectation that the site would always be trashed and dangerous has changed to the expectation that it is clean and orderly. These expectations have become self-fulfilling as the BLM goes into maintenance mode at 17-Mile.