Tension continues in Capitol Forest

Reckless and destructive discharge of firearms continues to plague the Capitol State Forest, recreational users and neighbors say.

In the past three weeks, vandals have peppered four new signs installed in the forest with bullets and shotgun pellets. The cost to replace the signs is pegged at about $1,000, said Phil Wolff, a state Department of Natural Resources recreation manager assigned to the Olympia-area forest.

In tough budget times, the vandalism is especially troubling, Wolff said.

“It’s money that could be used to pump an outhouse, replace a couple of rotten picnic tables, repair four campground fire rings or grade a campground parking area,” he said.

Damage to signs from firearms is nothing new in a forest where recreational target shooting is legal and hunting is widely accepted.

But in a 100,000-acre working forest that hosts about 100,000 visitors a year, conflicts among the various user groups can and do arise.

Mountain bicyclists, horseback riders, motorcyclists, hunters, hikers, campers and target shooters flock to the forest, which has 180 miles of trails evenly split between motorized and non-motorized use.

The hunting and target shooting is dispersed throughout the forest, although target shooting is supposed to be at manufactured targets placed against earthen backstops no closer than 500 feet from a campground, structure or residence and not on, down, next to or across roads and trails, according to recent rules developed by DNR.

Shooters also are supposed to pick up their shell casings, ammunition packaging and other debris.

Some question whether that is enough to make the forest safe for everyone.

“Sometimes you hear gunshots from 50 feet away,” said John Kramer, a Capitol Forest mountain biker and member of the volunteer group Friends of Capitol Forest. “Multiple riders have been pinned down by fire from rifles, semi-automatic weapons and handguns.”

Dave Snyder, another Friends of Capitol Forest member and a nearby resident, said he enjoys riding his mountain bike in the forest, as well as target shooting.

“Safe shooting can exist in the forest,” he said.

“I don’t have an issue with hunting,” said Capitol State Forest neighbor Marshall Oatman. “But it’s like a free-for-all up here with the random shooting. Nothing short of an outright ban is going to work. What are we waiting for? A stray bullet to hit a biker?”

DNR officials shudder at that thought as they walk a fine line, trying to accommodate all of the users of the Capitol State Forest and their other holdings across the state.

“This is a big emerging issue statewide; it’s high on our radar screen,” DNR spokeswoman Jane Chavey said. “With increased public-access closures on private forestlands, we’ve become the last spot in the lowlands.”

With suburban and rural population growth, the Capitol State Forest no longer is the remote place it once was.

And amid tough economic times and high fuel prices, the public is turning more and more to state lands for recreation closer to home, said Larry Raedel, chief of law enforcement services for DNR.

Raedel has two officers working in the Pacific Cascade Region of DNR, which takes in much of Southwest Washington, including the Capitol State Forest.

“We’re spread pretty thin,” he said. “We really rely on the public to be our eyes and ears in the woods.”

Formed four years ago, Friends of Capitol Forest has helped clean up garbage dumped in the forest, deterred vandalism by making parking areas more secure and placed giant stumps in areas where illegal off-road access has developed.

“The forest is pretty clean right now,” Snyder said as he surveyed an older dump site on a rutted trail littered with shotgun shells. “If we can keep it cleaned up, there will be less incentive for people to dump.”

The forest also escaped a recent round of DNR budget cuts to the agency’s recreational program, which lost 50 percent of its funding in the 2009 state budget.

But the forest is not immune to service cuts later in the two-year budget cycle, Wolff said.

“In tight budget times, we certainly don’t need vandalism,” he said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444