Even under a light layer of mid-December snow, the thousands of brightly colored shotgun shells carpeting the cinder pit near Cabin Butte are unmistakable.
Old computers, discarded appliances and the almost-unrecognizable shell of a red sedan lie among the bullets after being used as informal targets, further marking the area, several miles southeast of Bend off of China Hat Road, as a haven for hunters and target shooters.
“You’ve got a nice backstop for people to shoot at, so you don’t have as much of a risk of stray bullets going anywhere else,” said Kevin Larkin, ranger on the Bend-Fort Rock District of the Deschutes National Forest.
But as Central Oregon’s population continues to grow and Deschutes National Forest gets more crowded, these rolling cinder buttes, along with others in the forest, have increasingly begun to play host to other types of recreation.
Larkin said mountain bikers, horseback riders and other user groups have begun to use trails in the area, creating conflict with target shooters. Larkin said no one has been shot in his district, but he added that anecdotes of new visitors feeling unsafe or inconvenienced are relatively common.
“When you hear gunfire nearby, it can be a little unsettling,” Larkin said. “Some people will jump to the conclusion that it must be unsafe if it’s nearby.”
Target shooting is legal on most land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, as long as it abides by specific restrictions. Erik Larson, patrol captain for the U.S. Forest Service, said shooting at trees is prohibited, as is shooting across roads, rivers and lakes, and firing a gun within 150 yards of a campsite or trailhead.
Additionally, certain areas in the forest, including portions along the Deschutes River, as well as Horse Butte, are off-limits for shooting.
When firing guns in the forest, Larson said visitors are expected to shoot at a backstop — such as a wooden target stand or a cinder bluff — that can stop a bullet and prevent shrapnel.
“You want that nice earth backstop, so that you’re catching a bullet and it’s not as likely to catch fire,” he said.
While Larkin said most hunters and target shooters abide by the rules, the Forest Service has had issues with people shooting at trees and otherwise being unsafe. In Colorado’s Roosevelt National Forest, a woman was shot in the thigh accidentally in June, making headlines.
In general, Larkin said that as portions of the forest get more crowded, cutting corners gets more dangerous for visitors firing guns.
“Recreational shooting incidents are really common in places like Bend, where there is easy access to public land adjacent to large community centers,” Larkin said.
Crowding on popular mountain biking trails to the west of Bend has exacerbated the issue in areas historically popular with hunters.
Mark Campbell, manager at Pine Mountain Sports, said longtime mountain bikers are increasingly looking for new spots, as tried-and-true destinations such as Phil’s Trail get busier.
“We’re looking east (of Bend); we’re looking north; we’re looking south,” Campbell said.
Campbell named Swamp Wells Trail, in the same direction as Cabin Butte, as one of his favorite trails in the area. While he said he doesn’t get nervous when he hears gunshots in the area, he acknowledged that it can be unsettling for some riders.
Larkin added that the Horse Butte Trailhead, where Swamp Wells and other trails begin, frequently is full during busy spring and fall weekends.
He said that the Forest Service received a permit application for a mountain bike tour near Horse Butte, the first event to be permitted in that area.
“As more and more people move to Bend for this lifestyle, they’re going to seek out different experiences,” Larkin said.
Bill Littlefield, president of the Oregon Hunters Association’s Bend chapter, added that there’s a cultural dynamic to the conflict between cyclists and shooters. As more residents move to Bend from larger cities with less of a gun culture, Littlefield said he’s noticed more people who are concerned about the noise and the safety concerns from guns.
“It’s a gradual cultural change,” Littlefield said.
Larkin said the Forest Service won’t be implementing large-scale changes to how shooting is managed on public lands, and Campbell and Littlefield agreed that the best approach is for users to be more conscientious while playing on public land.
Littlefield said hunters should do their research before heading into the forest, to make sure they’re not entering an area with a lot of mountain bikers or off-highway vehicle riders.
“It’s not like going to the range,” he said.
Likewise, Campbell said mountain bikers need to be aware that they aren’t the only people recreating in Central Oregon’s forests.
“We are a cycling community, Bike Town USA, that lives among cowboys,” Campbell said.
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