04/13/2010, 10:45 am Bookmark and Share
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Steve Stout, [email protected]
THETOPIC: Fear of injuries from stray bullets allegedly from local gun range results in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources closing sections of a local state park and portions of the Illinois-Michigan Canal towpath.
WHAT HAPPENED?: After several reports of nearby misses on park and canal properties from projectiles flying off Buffalo Range Shooting Park, a gun range between Utica and Ottawa, state officials have now restricted access to the Effigy Tumuli area at Buffalo Rock State Park and a three-mile stretch of the I&M Canal for the safety of visitors.
WHYDOESITMATTER?: Access to public recreational areas is being denied by the state with officials pointing blame toward the closest likely source of gunfire — the rural Ottawa gun range. The shooting park's attorney called the IDNR action, "a smear campaign by the state" against an innocent business.
WHAT'S NEXT?: The Illinois Department of Natural Resources plans to send a notice to the gun range business this week to insure it is in compliance with a 2007 court order that addressed the stray bullet problem. Further investigation will continue. The manager of Buffalo Range Shooting Park strongly denied the IDNR accusations Friday and said, "Safety is our highest concern here at the firing range."
WANT TO DO MORE?:To reach the IDNR, call 217-608-3100.
"No matter what the IDNR says, we are not responsible for the state closing any section of the park or the I&M canal. It isn't us."
Those words from Ron (last name withheld by his request), manager of the Buffalo Range Shooting Park between Utica and Ottawa, were a strong response to the recent announcement and actions by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
On April 2, the same day the range opened for the season, the IDNR, citing reports of stray bullets in the area, placed public access restrictions on a section of Buffalo Rock State Park and a portion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal Towpath.
Tim Schweizer, IDNR spokesman, told The Times this week the restrictions were the result of conservation police reports taken from hikers in both locations who claim to hear or feel nearby "whizzing projectiles" in the surrounding timbers.
"In the interest of public safety, a western portion of the park and and part of the I&M towpath (between Utica and Ottawa) was closed for visitor safety until further notice," Schweizer said. "It is the DNR's obligation to address the concerns."
Schweizer said his department attributed the "near misses" to stray bullets fired off the shooting range, which is an estimated half-mile to a mile away away from the closed sections up the bluff.
The shooting range manager strongly disagrees. "We always have several range safety officers who are stationed at all times along the range. These are specially trained people, certified from the NRA school in shooting safety." he said.
Schweizer said the IDNR will send a letter to the range's owner, Everlyn Muffler, this week to remind her of the specifics of a 2007 court order that required improvements at the shooting park, including heightening of the safety berms on the end of the firing range.
Ron insisted all provisions of the court mandates were completed "and more."
"We're in compliance with that order. Our main berm was increased by 18 feet in 2006, even before that order came to us."
He welcomed IDNR or other state inspectors to visit the range anytime. "We are serious about safety."
"We are dedicated to the shooting sport," Ron said, adding that business has increased over the last few years. "It is definitely becoming more popular. We have shooters come to our range from all over the Midwest as well as many police organizations who use our facilities."
Ron suggested the IDNR and conservation police look elsewhere for the source of the stray bullets. "Quite often, before we open or after we close down the range, we can still hear nearby gunfire coming out of the woods," he said.
"We're an easy door to knock on. It is just not possible that any bullets are leaving our area — the range (and direction) a bullet would have to go isn't possible from our shooters."
However, admittedly before improvements to the range, shooting accidents have happened.
In May, 2002, an Elgin man was riding four-wheelers with two children ages 5 and 12 near the range when a bullet pierced his leg.
Jack Teboda remembered his first (and last) visit to La Salle County in an interview with The Times this week.
"The Lord was watching over me. The shot went through my leg and out my calf, hitting no bone. It threw me off the four-wheeler and felt like my whole leg had come off," Teboda said. "I was lucky to be playing golf a week later. Thank God that little boy wasn't hit."
Another man was wounded by a stray shot later in July that same year as he traveled on the towpath.
Ron insists such accidents cannot happen now from his range. "If we weren't safe, believe me, I would shut it down."
Schweizer said the IDNR will continue the probe into the issue. In the meantime, the restrictions will stay in place.
"It is a smear campaign by the state," said Eric Swanson of Joliet, attorney for the range. "My clients will continue to follow all the terms and conditions of that 2007 court order." Swanson, a shooting enthusiast himself, said the state has no evidence in the last few years that any projectile has left the range and landed near the park or canal.