Makeshift shooting range pits neighbors vs. state

Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources logo file image.
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources logo file image.

TOWN OF PACIFIC, Wis. (AP) – Tom Lichtfeld was standing outside his garage three years ago when he heard something rip through the air and land at his feet.

He bent down and picked a 9-millimeter bullet out of the ground – a stray round from the nearby makeshift shooting range at the Swan Lake Wildlife Area in south-central Wisconsin.

“I ran down there and yelled ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Lichtfeld said. “It’s a stupid setup.”

Gunfire has rung out at Swan Lake for years but neighbors say it’s getting out of control. Gun lovers are blasting away almost every day now and leaving behind so much debris that the site has become a dump.

The problems underscore the state’s love affair with all things firearms and have put the Republican-controlled Department of Natural Resources in a delicate position as it works to promote shooting sports. Residents and local officials have pushed for three years to force the DNR to prohibit shooting on the land but the agency won’t go that far. DNR officials hope to release an alternative plan soon but local leaders want more.

Swan Lake is a 2,466-acre mix of wetlands, grasslands and woods in the rural Town of Pacific in Columbia County. Visitors enter the area through a parking lot that lies at the base of sandy, 10-foot berms that make for a natural backstop for bullets. The result: a free makeshift firing range.

Shooting on public land is legal in 54 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Columbia. But shooting at Swan Lake has become problematic since 2011. It’s unclear exactly why the site’s popularity has spiked, although local officials speculate it might have to do with the state’s concealed carry law, which went into effect that same year.

Now, local leaders and neighbors say, the shooting starts as early as 6 a.m. and goes on past dusk four or five days a week.

More shooters have meant more stray bullets flying over the berms into Lichtfeld’s subdivision, which is only a quarter-mile or so away. A sign in the Swan Lake parking lot warns shooters of the neighborhood’s proximity but it’s so riddled with bullet holes it’s hard to read.

What’s more, shooters have been dragging anything they can find to the site to serve as targets, from beer cans and basketballs to computer keyboards and Xbox 360s.

“This, to me, is getting ridiculous,” neighbor Phil Manthey said.

The residents and local leaders have spent the last three years trying to persuade the DNR to prohibit shooting on public land in Columbia County, but the agency has been hesitant to pull the plug.

Since Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, the DNR has been working to increase opportunities for shooting. Leaders in the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR, have rejected a blanket prohibition on shooting in Columbia County, saying there’s too few places shooters can go as it is.

Instead, DNR officials plan to build a public range in the county, advertise existing ranges, rent time for the public at private ranges and potentially close off the Swan Lake berms to prevent people from setting up targets on them, DNR Regional Director Mark Aquino said. The agency expects to release a final plan in the next few weeks, he said.

Town of Pacific Chairman Bill Devine said he doesn’t understand why the agency simply won’t ban target shooting on the property.

“I don’t know where to go with these people,” he said. “That is an unsafe environment.”

So the shooting at Swan Lake goes on.

Krissi Jenkins, 22, of Pardeeville, spent a recent morning firing a .22-caliber pistol at a milk jug. She questioned why people moved into the subdivision knowing a shooting range is nearby, a choice she likened to moving to the country and then complaining about manure.

“There’s very few places you can go to shoot without paying,” her father-in-law, 66-year-old Wallace Jenkins, said. “(Swan Lake) is really neat.”

 

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