Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:39 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unofficial Ohlson Mountain Shooting Range stirs up neighbors



Photo by Michael Armstrong

A target sits on top of a dirt mound in the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities gravel pit on Ohlson Mountain. Because of the angle and the lack of a back stop, bullets shot at this could go over the top of the gravel pit and continue traveling.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Ron Shannon looks down from the top of Ohlson Mountain at the Kristin Domela ranch below.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A sign posted at the top of Easter Day Road toward the Kristen Domela ranch.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A target sits in front of a dirt mound in the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities gravel pit on Ohlson Mountain.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Shot up televisions, a fuel tank, tin cans and a stuffed animal toy litter the ground on private property on Ohlson Mountain. The shooting area also had shot up appliances and a burned car.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A burned, shot-up car lies upside down on private property on Ohlson Mountain.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Kristin Domela, right, holds her goat while her fiance, Ron Shannon, stands next to her on their ranch. Ohlson Mountain is the flat hill behind them.

At the end of Ohlson Mountain Road past the Lookout Mountain Ski Trails, a reindeer farm and the Kachemak Ski Club Rope Tow, landowners can find a bit of the old Alaska. Rugged roads that turn to mud at breakup, wide open fields and glorious views of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet offer a retreat that might not be true wilderness, but is as good as it gets in road-accessible rural Alaska.

And then there's Ohlson Mountain itself.

Follow the road up to the top of the flat mountain dominating the rolling hills north of Homer, and in gravel pits owned by the state of Alaska and the Gordon Hayes Trust, area firearms enthusiasts have set up an unofficial shooting range. The gravel pits look like Helmand Province in Afghanistan after a firefight between U.S. Marines and Taliban insurgents.

Thousands of rifle and handgun cartridges and shotgun shells litter the ground. Overturned, burned trucks lie against gravel berms, tires melted off, windows shot out and bullet holes piercing the metal. Refrigerators, stoves and television sets have been blasted into oblivion. One hot water tank has been shot up so much it is more holes than metal. From stuffed toys to Four Loko drink cans, shooters have had a field day. It's Homer's version of the Rambo Rest Stop on the Glenn Highway and Jim Creek in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Some neighbors nearby have had enough. After phone calls to Alaska State Troopers, legislators, and Kenai Peninsula Borough and state officials, the road to the gravel pits soon could be closed off and "no trespassing" signs posted — the legal criteria troopers need to keep shooters out.

Below the mountain about 1,000 feet as a high-powered bullet flies, Kristin Domela and her fiancé Ron Shannon have a 150-acre ranch with horses, a goat and a large garden. They rent out a cabin and volunteers with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, program visit for the summer. On a quiet summer day golden-crowned sparrows, ravens, magpies and gray jays can be heard from the surrounding forest.

Until the bullets start flying.

"It's every day. The sound is invasive," Domela said. "It's just like it explodes. It resonates down here. You're constantly tensing up."

Sometimes not just sound travels down to their ranch. Domela and Shannon have heard bullets ricochet over their heads. Their renter and the WWOOF volunteers are afraid to walk on the roads and trails closer to the mountain. Riding horses can be scary. Over the 11 years she's owned the ranch, Domela said she was scared enough she called the troopers at least 20 times.

Looking up from a trail by their outhouse and shop, one side of Ohlson Mountain looms. Standing on the mountain in the state gravel pit, Shannon points out the ranch below. A target placed in the pit against a sloped backdrop shows the danger. If a rifle bucked or a shooter had sloppy aim, bullets could skip over the gravel or fly overhead. A .22 bullet can travel 1.5 miles and a high-powered rifle bullet 3.5 miles.

"We're taking on bullets. That's unsafe behavior," Shannon said. "I support people's right to shoot. I don't support their right to be sending bullets over my house."

When Shannon has confronted shooters on the mountain and told them about bullets flying overhead, he gets a common response.

"'Oh. I didn't know,'" he said people tell him.

That goes against the four basic gun safety rules, as codified by gun safety instructor Jeff Cooper:

• Treat guns as if they are always loaded.

• Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.

• Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.

• Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

"Many people in the shooting sports teach kids that from a young age," said Sgt. David DeCoeur of the Anchor Point Post, Alaska State Troopers.

A sloped, solid gravel backdrop might not be enough to stop bullets.

"With any weapons you've got to be sure of the target and the surroundings beyond," DeCoeur said. "Who's to say that everybody that goes out to shoot is an accurate shot?"

Or, as Tom Hagberg, chief range safety officer for the Kachemak Gun Club, put it, "You're responsible for that bullet from when you put it in the firearm and it lands someplace safe."

The road to the mountain top goes through an L-shaped 70-acre lot owned by the Gordon Hayes Revocable Trust and used by QAP, formerly Quality Asphalt Paving of Anchorage. The road ends in a 45-acre piece of state land managed by the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water. The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities has authorization to remove gravel for state projects. About 15 acres has been developed, said Cliff Larson, permitting manager for the Division of Mining, Land and Water. Use of the material site was granted to DOT&PF in 1965.

Except for special-use areas, shooting on state land is generally allowed. The state through administrative or legislative action can impose land-use restrictions, Larson said, as was done for the Jim Creek area in the Knik River Public Use Area. For Jim Creek, areas were set up where people can target shoot, with only wood or paper targets allowed.

Criminal laws prohibit shooting toward buildings, from roads and across roads. Using alcohol while shooting, or being drunk in possession of firearms, also is illegal — something "any trooper would jump through a fire to fix," DeCoeur said.

Compared to other remote areas, DeCoeur said Ohlson Mountain isn't known as a big party spot. Troopers don't have evidence of illegal activity going on there.

The state, however, has concerns about trash and debris on its land, Larson said. State land on Exit Glacier Road near Seward, for example, had to be cleaned up after camping over the Fourth of July holiday — an annual project. Lead shot and bullets also cause environmental concerns, particularly for gravel to be used on state roads.

That was a problem from another unofficial target shooting area, a rest stop at Mile 31.5 Glenn Highway near Reflections Lake. There lead became a hazard for wildlife and the state closed off the area and cleaned it up.

"We do have concerns," Larson said. "We know shooting in the gravel sites does happen. We make every effort we can to minimize it and clean up and make sure people are safe in those areas."

Domela notes an irony about shooting on Ohlson Mountain: For most people living in Homer or Anchor Point, it's closer to drive on the Sterling Highway to Mile 160 and shoot at the Kachemak Gun Club Range. The gun club has certified range safety officers on duty. Shooting is $5 a day, $60 a year and $75 a household a year. Hours for the pistol and rifle range are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays and 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays. The trap range is open 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Skeet shooters can rent the voice-activated trap shoot for $4 per 25 targets. Homer Police, troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard also use the range on a contract basis, said Hagberg, the range's chief safety officer. If more volunteers become certified range safety officers, the gun club can be open more hours. Shooting groups with range safety officers, like the Kachemak Skeeters, a youth shooting club, also can use the range.

After talking to Gordon Hayes Jr. at QAP and the state, Shannon and Domela said they got permission from QAP to fix a gate at the bottom of the road to the QAP land. The state also has been discussing the issue with QAP, said Brenda Hewitt, chief communications officer for DOT&PF.

"Our maintenance and operations guys are getting a hold of QAP to see what they can do jointly to secure the pit," she said. "Past attempts have not worked, but with help from local leaders we may be able to work at a mutually beneficial solution."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.