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Shooting range draws fire

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A proposal for a National Guard biathlon course on Forest Service land, complete with a .22 caliber firing range, just east of MacDonald Pass and the Continental Divide, has Guard athletes ready to glide trails, and conservationists fired up.

“There are strong emotions on both sides. There is very little middle ground,” said Larry Cole, a lands forester for the Helena National Forest. Cole has received over 70 comments on the proposal so far.

The biathlon course would tie in with an existing cross-country ski area with approximately 25 kilometers of trail. The Guard’s proposal calls for a quarter-mile of new road, the clearing of six acres, running power to the site and the construction of a parking area, a 50-meter shooting range, four buildings and a toilet.

“The biggest issue I have with this development is that it is planned for the very center of the Continental Divide travel corridor,” area resident Sam Dorsi said. “Animals traveling north and south will be affected. The impact of this project is larger than its footprint would suggest. This site is especially important because it occurs in a bottleneck.”

The National Guard has two other national training sites, one in Minnesota and one in Vermont, but currently there are no courses in the West.

“The intent is to have a larger pool of athletes to pull out competitors who have potential to be Olympic athletes,” Lt. Col. Steve Martinka said. “Fort Harrison looked like a good location and we looked at some sites. MacDonald came out on top because it has some of the best snow in the country. Instead of going into a pristine area, we can tie into existing trails and have less of an impact.”

Currently the Forest Service is conducting a scoping process to identify public concerns, which will in turn affect the depth of the environmental analysis to be planned.

“We certainly haven’t made a decision yet,” Cole said. The official cut-off day for comments is April 30, but feedback, he says, will be accepted after that date.

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