Legal shooting in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has raised concern among neighbors, a local legislator and the U.S. Forest Service. A recent cleanup yielded three 20-yard Dumpsters of trash. And then there’s the matter of the exploding targets.

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If anything can be agreed upon about the areas where people target shoot in the forest near the town of Greenwater, it’s that too many people with guns are there.

Shooters say the sites within Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest can be crowded and messy. They’ve seen a few bad apples who didn’t know how to handle their weapons. Nearby neighbors complain about the consistent pop, pop, pop resonating from the woods and say bullets have whizzed into their neighborhood.

The sheer volume of shooters, safe and otherwise, has become a predicament for a U.S. Forest Service that’s been unable to consistently enforce rules as a frustrated community — which itself includes many shooters — bears down amid anxiety about gun-toting outsiders.

The Greenwater area is popular because it’s close to urban centers, accessible via old logging roads, and no fee or pass is required to park. Also, shooting is restricted elsewhere, particularly along much of the Interstate 90 corridor.

At many sites near Greenwater, bullet-riddled refuse is tucked away among trees and the ground is littered with shotgun shells and metal jackets. Residents say bullets have whizzed into their neighborhood. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A local network of sites has several shooting spots designated by the Forest Service, but also a patchwork of other places on abandoned logging roads and in wooded nooks where people shoot.

“When folks want to go out and do shooting where it’s crowded, they travel further up the road and … they pull off and do the shooting they want to do,” said Martie Schramm, the Snoqualmie District ranger who oversees the area.

Shooting is generally allowed on national forest land so long as shooters have a bulletproof backstop and are at least 150 yards from campsites, structures and occupied areas. Shooting must not endanger anyone, according to Forest Service rules.

At many sites near Greenwater, bullet-riddled refuse is tucked away among second-growth trees and the forest understory is littered with shotgun shells and metal jackets.

The targets aren’t your grandfather’s coffee can, but include swiss-cheesed propane bottles, iPhones with slug-shattered screens and shredded aerosol cans filled with unsavory chemicals. Perhaps it’s an assault on consumerism. From Gatorade bottles to Coleman fuel and Land O’Lakes butter packaging, few American brands seem to have escaped bullet holes.

During a recent cleanup, Forest Service officials and volunteers collected three 20-yard Dumpsters of trash.

“It’s quite disturbing,” Schramm said about the volume of trash.

Neighbors are similarly concerned about middle-of-the-night explosions they hear at the sites.

On a recent Friday night, during a statewide burn ban and on one of the hottest days of the year, shooters firing at exploding targets started a small wildfire within a clear-cut, said Greenwater Fire Chief Paul Sowers. Although the fire was on forest land, his volunteer fire district responded first and quickly doused it.

Sowers said gunshots could be heard nearby as firefighters worked.

“I grew up in a culture where if you have shooting, it’s safe shooting. I don’t feel that anymore,” he said.

Locals worry about using area trails.

“It’s really scary,” said Bob Grubb, who owns Wapiti Woolies, a gift store and snack shop in Greenwater. He won’t bike along the paved forest road near his house anymore. “You don’t know where those bullets are going and who is shooting.”

Stray rounds have residents on edge.

Last summer, a woman said she found a bullet in her deck. A man who lives across the highway said he watched bullets striking high in the trees alongside his house. In 2013, another man reported to police that his thumb was grazed by a stray bullet that split open a bag of dog food he was carrying.

State Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, who is one of the loudest neighborhood voices pushing for restrictions on shooting in the nearby forest land, said he’s been intimidated by shooters. A group of men blocked a road he was driving on, got out with guns in hand and laughed at him for 20 minutes before finally letting him pass, he said.

Hurst, a former police commander who has a “Top Gun” mustache and several guns of his own, used politically loaded language to describe groups of shooters he believes are causing problems. They’re “militia-type neo-Nazis,” “white trash people who are just kind of stupid” and “young people who saw how fun it is to blow stuff up in the woods” on social media, he said.

Hurst is incensed over the situation and has been giving tours of the area to news media. He hits his talking points nearly as fast as the semi-automatic rifles can fire nearby.

“There are hundreds of trees, maybe thousands of trees full of bullets,” Hurst said, noting that once shot they are no longer valuable for logging. He pointed out trees speckled with bullets. “This is our timber. Taxpayers own it.”

Hurst believes some of the shooting sites are badly polluted. A soil test of a sample collected by a neighborhood group at a now-closed shooting site was tested for lead and found to have 16,400 parts per billion — many multiples above safety standards.

He also sees troubling cultural undertones. Hurst pointed out a cardboard gorilla target tucked away in the forest with a swastika emblazoned on it in blue tape.

“There’s garbage everywhere and toxic chemicals,” he said, as he picked up an industrial cleaning aerosol shredded by bullets.

Hurst estimated 90 percent of shooters near Greenwater were bad actors who didn’t pick up after themselves, or were shooting at prohibited explosive targets or firing unsafely into wooded areas.

Shooters disagreed.

Robert Albritton and Eli Gotay, both former Army soldiers familiar with weaponry, said they come to the popular shooting sites on weekdays about once a week.

“I’ve only had a couple encounters where you’ll see younger guys who aren’t avid shooters who just want to shoot something up,” Albritton said.

Albritton, from Puyallup, said he’d never seen anyone shoot exploding targets, though he didn’t doubt it had happened. He said a handful of people don’t pick up their trash and that he didn’t understand why people would shoot computers, TVs or other appliances.

Neighbors to shooting sites on forest land near Greenwater are concerned about noise, trash and stray bullets.
Neighbors to shooting sites on forest land near Greenwater are concerned about noise, trash and stray bullets.

He said he liked to shoot on weekdays because of his work schedule, but was also glad not to be among the weekend crowds and “white trash redneck dudes who don’t care.” Those, he said, were responsible for the trash.

Once he saw two young men do something profoundly dumb.

“I think they had an AK, I think it jammed on them and stove-piped,” he said, referring to when an empty cartridge fails to eject. “They picked it up and looked down the barrel.”

Hurst said some shooters who think they’re acting safely don’t understand the dangers of some shooting sites. Albritton and Gotay were firing an AR-15 into a clear-cut where a hill slopes down into flatland. About 100 yards in front of them was a dense wooded patch.

What people don’t realize, Hurst said, is that houses and Highway 410 are less than a mile beyond.

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Dan Solie, the co-owner of waguns.org, a gun-enthusiast community, agreed that the clear-cut was problematic.

“Right now, the way that site is developed, it’s natural to shoot right into the woods,” Solie said. Shooters, he said, often set up near the road, which faces the woods and runs at a 45-degree angle alongside the hill, which forms a natural backstop. “Smart people will position themselves and shoot right at the hillside.”

He hopes the area can be redesigned.

Solie said the rapid rise of gun ownership and lack of access to shooting areas is pushing people en masse to places like Greenwater.

“It’s like congestion in Seattle. We all of a sudden get so many cars in the road, but the freeway’s only so wide,” he said.

Both Solie and locals said they want a heavier presence of law enforcement in the area.

A single officer is assigned to the southern portion of the forest, including the Skykomish, North Bend and Enumclaw areas. He patrols the Greenwater area two days a week.

Ranger Schramm said she has four full-time Forest Service employees dedicated to the area for special projects, permitting and working with volunteer groups, among other tasks. She hired another four temporary workers for the summer, she said.

The Forest Service has sponsored cleanups, which is how Solie got involved.

He said he was sympathetic to local concerns.

“Unfortunately, when they go out there and see the trash, they don’t see the hundreds of people that didn’t leave trash. They walk up and say, ‘Oh, all shooters are like that.’ ”

For nearby residents, “I don’t think it’s a safety issue as much as a quality-of-life issue — a sound issue,” Solie said. He said it would take “a string of bad luck” for a bullet to reach the neighborhood through such a densely wooded area.

Schramm said she is searching for an answer. She said the Forest Service has not ruled out closing the area to shooters.

That would satisfy Hurst, the state legislator, who is so frustrated by what he called years of inaction that he called the Forest Service “either grossly incompetent or cowards,” along with another, unprintable epithet.

“This is not what John Muir had in mind” for public lands, Hurst said.