Police, BLM discuss dangers of shooting, cycling conflicts in South Hills area of Santa Clara

The increasing popularity of the South Hills area near Santa Clara is creating conflicts between recreational shooters and other users, Santa Clara, Utah, March 16, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Whit Whitacre was riding his mountain bike near the Cove Wash trail during a road trip to Southern Utah when he saw a man point a gun at him and send a bullet whizzing by his head.

Ditching his bike, he ran for cover in a nearby ravine. Dozens of bullets continued to fly overhead as he called 911, fearing for his life.

“The bullets just went right over my head,” Whitacre said.

Whitacre’s experience is not uncommon in the South Hills area of Santa Clara. Police receive calls like his about twice a month, Sgt. Jaron Studly from the Santa Clara-Ivins Police Department said. And while so far no one has been hurt, the risk is there.

South Hills is a commonly used area for shooting and target practice, while also including a well-known trail system for cyclists and hikers, including trails such as Cove Wash and Barrel Roll.

The land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management but is also within Santa Clara city limits. Because there is no law restricting shooting within city limits, unless it is within 600 feet of a house, it is legal to shoot in the area as long as they are not shooting across a road or trailhead and creating a hazardous environment.

Mountain bikers park at the Cove Wash trailhead in Santa Clara, Utah, Jan. 26, 2017 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

“People just need to use common sense when they’re out there. Be aware,” Studly said. “If you see cyclists then maybe you need to push out a little farther with your shooting activities. If you’re cycling, people need to understand that it’s BLM property, it’s a shared use, it’s not designated for one or the other.”

The city of Santa Clara, BLM and Washington County have been working on plans to put a shooting range in the area, which they hope will be a solution to the recreational conflict and the safety issues thereof.

Because the land is BLM regulated, the city has been hesitant to enact a law against shooting in the area. However, once the shooting range is established the City Council has agreed to implement a new city ordinance that would prohibit shooting within city limits outside of a designated shooting area, Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg said.

“The city still feels there is a very real safety hazard out there and continues to encourage the BLM and the county to find a site where shooting can take place without threatening the mountain bikers, hikers and other users,” he said.

Talks of a shooting range have gone on for years, and the county officially submitted an application to the BLM to lease the land through the Recreation and Public Purposes Act in 2017. Officials are in the process of choosing a design layout for the range, BLM St. George Field Manager Keith Rigtrup said.

Washington County engineers are working on designing a layout to allow for all kinds of shooting activities, including handguns, shotguns and long range.

Read more: County backs proposed shooting range with BLM application

The range will be placed south of Santa Clara in the South Hills area near the Cove Wash trailhead. But the process of finding the exact location has been a slow one since they’re trying to find a place that won’t interfere with the several endangered species inhabiting the area, but that is also close enough to town to be effective.

The South Hills area of Santa Clara, Utah, Jan. 26, 2017 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

The area is inhabited by the desert tortoise, Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy and Holmgren milk-vetch, which are all on endangered species lists.

Proximity to the city is also a consideration in choosing a location for the range. Officials are trying to make sure that the range is close to town so that it will be convenient for people to use.

“I think if we could get something that’s close enough to town that people would use, I think it would go a long ways at solving some of these issues,” Rigtrup said.

The range will be free to the public; the cost for operating and maintaining it will come from the county’s recreation funds.

The cost for building the range will depend on the layout chosen, as will the timeline, Rigtrup said. When the county decides on a layout, it will have to resubmit the application with the updated plans to BLM. Then the project will be phased in over the course of several years.

In the meantime, those participating in recreational activities in the area are encouraged to be aware of the situation and take precautions to ensure the safety of everyone using it.

“We just encourage the public to be safe and be aware of what they’re doing, especially when you’re target shooting. It’s a great recreational activity, it’s allowed on BLM lands, but obviously it carries with it some enhanced risks and issues that need to be thought about and considered when you’re choosing places to go and how to handle yourself,” Rigtrup said.

The BLM lists several rules and safety tips on their website for recreational shooting in Utah, including:

  • Never shoot from or over any road or highway.
  • Shoot in a safe direction with a good backstop. Know your target and beyond.
  • Possession or use of exploding targets is prohibited.
  • Be aware of shooting closure areas. Pay attention to signs.
  • Be aware of fire restrictions and regulations.
  • Do not use plastic pellets, tracer rounds, exploding rounds or steel-core rounds.
  • Do not attach targets to plants or place targets against rocks, plants, or solid objects. It is illegal to deface or destroy trees, signs, outbuildings or other objects on federal lands.
  • Carry in your targets and carry out all litter, brass and shell casings. All targets, shell casings, debris and trash must be removed.
  • Cross-country travel is not permitted outside of off-highway vehicle open area boundaries, so please stay on designated routes.

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Twitter: @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

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