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Dave Slepnikoff bristles when he sees trees that have been shredded by target shooters out having a good time.

“They shoot the oaks thinking they’re dead,” Slepnikoff, a forest protection officer for the Black Hills National Forest, said as he strolled through a shooting range near Beretta Road. “They’ll put their targets up on them and just kill them all.”

Shooting is legal throughout the Black Hills National Forest. The problem comes from those who don’t follow the rules and others who leave their garbage behind.

Beretta Road and the three other spots in the Mystic Ranger District -- Victoria Lake Road, Hidden Valley Road and Government Pasture -- have for decades served as playgrounds for gun enthusiasts, according to District Ranger Bob Thompson, who heads the Mystic Ranger District.

Protection officers inform shooters what constitutes a violation -- which includes shooting at trees -- when they meet them while on patrol and issue tickets to violators. Fines for the more common offenses -- littering, shooting live trees and dumping garbage -- range from $100 to $500, Slepnikoff said. Fines are paid to the U.S. Department of Treasury, he said.

If the damage is excessive, officers will issue a ticket requiring the offender to appear in court in the hope that a judge will require them to pay for the damage that the Forest Service otherwise will have to find funds for, Slepnikoff said.

But it isn’t only the shooting violations that are problematic.

“It’s dumping and people bringing up an old TV and refrigerator. Stuff like that is aggravating,” Thompson said. “We certainly wish people would take better care of the national forest.”

With the help of volunteers, the U.S. Forest Service tidies up the shooting areas about twice a year.

“You get the good people and the conscientious people to come out and clean up somebody else’s mess,” Slepnikoff said.

But after a while, piles of spent ammunition return, broken appliances land on the hillside and trees die for target practice.

With continual cleanup needed at the shooting areas, Thompson said, the Forest Service has considered closing them but fear others will pop up in their place.

“Where are you willing to accept it?” Thompson said. “The reality is folks are going to go out and shoot at places in the woods.”

Writing tickets doesn’t seem to make much of a long-term impact, he said. In fact, he said, the Forest Service signs that spell out the violations become targets themselves.

“You write a lot of tickets, and it still doesn’t seem to slow down,” Slepnikoff said. “There are only so many of us around. We can’t be out all day, every day, trying to stop people from destroying a national forest.”

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On a warm afternoon in late March, Kris Linde and his brother, Dave, were taking turns firing at the portable target they brought to the Beretta Road site, which is just off U.S. Highway 16, about 15 miles southwest of Rapid City.

The brothers live in Box Elder but grew up in Wyoming, where they practiced target shooting on their parents’ property.

A few small groups joined them, including a couple firing a handgun at targets pinned to pine trees.

Kris Linde, in prone position, fired his AR-15 rifle, creating a sound that would have impaired his hearing if not for his ear muffs.

He took stock of his brass casings on the ground, planning to retrieve them and take them home, along with the target.

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“I am surprised that people don’t take care of it a little better,” he said, surveying the debris scattered at the site. “It just makes it look bad. It’s a mess.”

Slepnikoff recently drove through another popular shooting spot, Victoria Lake Road -- a multi-use area about 10 miles southwest of Rapid City, off Sheridan Lake Road.

The area was quiet until a rusty red pickup truck hauling black garbage bags and a mattress passed by Slepnikoff’s light green Forest Service SUV. Suspecting trash dumping, he followed the small truck to Sheridan Lake Road, noting the license plate so he could pass the information on to Forest Service law enforcement.

Slepnikoff knows that many people follow the rules, and it is likely that only a small group of users are trashing the forest.

The destruction isn’t unique to the Forest Service property. 

A developed shooting range in Spearfish Canyon, which is operated by the Spearfish Rifle & Pistol Club, also sees piles of used shells littering the grounds -- and the occasional appliance -- said John Roggenbuck, the club’s treasurer.

Leased from the city of Spearfish, the range is behind a locked fence. For $20 a year, a member gets access to the shooting range.

Roggenbuck said their problem could be worse, but regular monitoring and frequent use by club leaders helps. Also, the range is close to Spearfish, which makes vandalism more visible.

“There are always some people who seem to bring trash out there and leave it,” he said. “We just have to pick it up.”

Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or holly.meyer@rapidcityjournal.com.

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