Trash had accumulated at the rifle range prior to a cleanup effort during spring. Photo courtesy Brooks Ludwig

The Department of Natural Resources’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation has apologized for not providing the public with more notice after erecting a gate near the Chena River State Recreation Area shooting range at mile 36.4 Chena Hot Springs Road. The gate was installed June 13 and stops vehicle access to the range.

After complaints from residents, the division announced it will hold a public meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Department of Natural Resources, 3700 Airport Way, to discuss options for the gate’s removal.

Brooks Ludwig, park superintendent for the Northern Region, said the installation of the gate was prompted by the recurrence of vast amounts of trash at the range. Ludwig said that one of the primary issues is that the Northern Region no longer has state funds to organize a clean-up crew.

“We were cut $328,000 in the fiscal year 2018. We lost three positions in the Northern Region,” Ludwig said.

The appearance of the gate elicited a letter from the Tanana Valley Sportsmen's Association, which accused the division of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and requested the removal of the gate to allow equal access to all members of the public.

Among those irked by the gate is Richard Patton, an 80-year-old disabled veteran who uses the range with enough regularity that he preferred to define his use by the days he doesn’t take a trip down there.

“I limit my times down there to Monday through Friday,” Patton said. “I used to hunt. My dad started training me on guns when I was 5.”

Patton has spent decades shooting competitively — a practice he still keeps up: He took two silver medals at the Alaska International Senior Games last year. In 2000, when he moved from Iowa to Alaska, he settled in Two Rivers because of its proximity to the shooting range.

“Then, in the last month or so, they locked the range up,” he said. “They expect you to walk a quarter-mile from the gate to the range.”

After suffering an injury at work, Patton had extensive surgery on his right leg, which means lugging his gear for a quarter-mile is not an option. While Patton was eventually given a combination to unlock the gate, he still sees the gate as “an infringement on people’s freedoms.”

“To me, it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “I can appreciate the concern to keep the range clean. However, TVSA has repeatedly taken teams out there to clean the range on a regular basis. The shooters have taken this upon themselves.”

A July 27 letter sent from the sportsmen’s association to Ludwig states that “many people that use the range are elderly and/or disabled” and that “allowing only able-bodied people to access the shooting range discriminates against those who do not have the physical capability to perambulate that distance.”

Grant Lewis, sportsmen’s association president, said, “We just asked — I guess, demanded — that they take the gate down and provide equal access to everyone.”

While Lewis understands the division’s intent, he said he thinks the gate may exacerbate the trash problem. If you force someone to carry a box or a target stand down a trail for a quarter-mile, he said, they’re far less likely to take it away with them when they leave.

“You’re probably creating more of a trash problem than solving it,” he said.

Like Patton, Lewis said he believes that leaving range-users with access to clear the trash themselves is likely a better way to deal with the problem.

The sportsmen’s association’s letter states that, in both 2017 and 2018, it organized a team of volunteers to clean the area extensively. The letter ends by inviting the division to contact the group if the range needs cleaning up again. This is, however, dependent on the range having vehicle access.

The division responded to the sportsmen’s association with a letter, inviting the group and other members of the public to help find a solution.

The letter also states that the Legislature has cut the Northern Region’s budget by 40% over the past four years and that, with a dearth of staff, the division is “open to suggestions” over how to handle the trash problem. Ludwig said that, had the division known the gate would cause such anger, they would have “done it differently.” This is why it organized a public meeting and will solicit public comment in other ways, too, including via an as-yet-to-be-created online survey and by engaging with the local State Parks Citizen Advisory Board.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459 7575. Follow him on Twitter: