Jared Herrera unzipped a gun case and lifted his Saiga semi-automatic from it, smiling.
“This is my baby.”
He and his buddy Mario Martinez pressed protective plugs into their ears and crouched behind their rifles, aiming toward a hanging metal target on the nearby hillside. The hill’s grassy slope sported a charcoal color, left by a years-gone fire. It glimmered brightly in some spots, as aluminum remnants of shot-to-pieces soda cans reflected the harsh afternoon sunlight.
The shooters opened fire.
As the rounds unloaded, a handful of bullets successfully struck their target: Ping! Ping! Empty casings fell into tarps spread out below Herrera and Martinez, collecting their trash for easy disposal.
“I try to make sure it looks how it did when I came out here,” Herrera said of his chosen shooting site. The area sits off Highway 166 in Los Padres National Forest’s northern half, which covers Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Northern Santa Barbara counties.
Herrera gestured toward trash on the hillside—old targets, bullets, and crushed cans—left behind by previous, less conscientious shooters: “We try not to leave stuff like that. It’s tacky.”
If other shooters keep leaving trash out in the forest, the place will “look like a landfill pretty soon,” Herrera said.
He shook his head and added: “No one wants that.”
Los Padres ForestWatch couldn’t agree more, and the nonprofit organization takes the sentiment a step further: It released a report last month claiming unregulated target shooting in the forest threatens public health and safety, as well as natural resources.
In its summary, the report states: “Target shooting has become an epidemic that plagues the entire forest, where carpets of spent casings and shells, broken targets, and trash cover some of the forest’s most beautiful and important places.”
Currently, Los Padres Forest Service permits forestwide shooting except in specific areas, during particularly dry seasons, and near campsites. Shooters are technically required to clean up after themselves and are prohibited from shooting at trees, but those regulations are difficult to enforce, according to Los Padres ForestWatch Executive Director Jeff Kuyper.
“The Forest Service has very few law enforcement officers, and they can’t be everywhere at once,” Kuyper said. “You basically have to have a law enforcement person out there to catch somebody in the act, and with 2 million acres of national forest, that’s pretty hard to do.”
The result: trash accumulation, damage to trees, and soil contamination by heavy metals.
Alisha Taff-Skelton, who lives on a ranch adjacent to the popular shooting destination off Highway 166, said unregulated shooting in Los Padres also endangers the forest’s other visitors.
“If you wanted to go hiking and see wildflowers, there’s no way you could do that with people shooting everywhere,” Taff-Skelton said. “That kind of detracts from a scenic, peaceful nature experience.”
Taff-Skelton and Kuyper both said the Forest Service should reign in shooting permissions and provide designated, managed areas for shooting. Otherwise, shooters who ignore the rules will taint the forest for everyone else.
“It’s just a number of people who feel like the rules don’t apply to them,” Taff-Skelton said. “They skirt those rules and they destroy trees. They pack trash out there and leave it. It’s discouraging for the whole forest environment.”
Herrera and Martinez, who go out of their way to leave their shooting site as they found it, are a rare breed. Many recreational shooters who frequent Los Padres fail to clean up, leaving the forest littered with ammunition leftovers, empty six-packs, and homemade targets ranging from paper and plastic to furniture and old computer monitors.
The trash is shooters’ most obvious impact on the forest environment, but according to forestry expert Seth Davis, the waste doesn’t actually do much to harm forest health.
“Things like paper, plastics, that kind of stuff, probably doesn’t really have much of an effect,” said Davis, who teaches natural resources management and environmental science at Cal Poly. “There’s not a lot of materials that can be leached into the environment from papers or certain kinds of plastics, so they’re pretty chemically stable.”
Trash that doesn’t break down or degrade won’t impede a forest’s life, making it “nothing but an eyesore”—but that doesn’t make it OK for shooters to leave their waste behind, Davis said.
“The forest belongs to all of us,” he said. “That’s all of our house. If you don’t pick up after yourself, that’s an unacceptable use of the public domain. They wouldn’t appreciate it if I went into their house and made a big mess and left my stuff there.”
Not all trash is created equal. Though shooters’ old furniture and empty beer bottles might not affect forest health, the same can’t be said for heavy metal waste, which comes from lead ammunition and busted computer monitors containing mercury.
Soil chemist Chip Appel, who has researched the effects and abundance of heavy metals in shooting range soils, said areas frequented by shooters for long periods of time could present high concentrations of lead in the soil.
But in Central Coast soils, he said, that usually doesn’t mean much.
“A lot of those metals are really stable in the soil, actually,” Appel said. “Once they’re there, they don’t move much, because they form really strong bonds with soil particles and with the organic material that’s in the soil.”
Translation: In most cases, heavy metals cozy up to soil and don’t leave it. They won’t move into nearby groundwater and they won’t be taken up by plants—unless their levels become exceptionally high, as they were at the Camp San Luis Obispo shooting range where Appel conducted a research project.
“If something is super highly concentrated, because you’re doing that same activity in the same place over and over again, then it becomes a high enough level where the plants are going to start taking it up,” Appel said.
This can lead to decreased plant growth, or if animals typically graze in the area and consume vegetation with high lead concentrations, the heavy metal poisoning can move up the food chain.
“But in a lot of the soils that we have around here, they’re going to be pretty stable,” Appel said.
Kuyper said there hasn’t been testing for heavy metal levels in the soils at Los Padres. Though recreational shooting has been happening in the forest for decades, Appel said it’s hard to speculate whether the shooting sites have seen enough action to present dangerously high levels of heavy metals.
Shooting a living thing will hurt it. Trees are no exception.
Across the road from Herrera and Martinez sat another shooting site, not currently in use but clearly popular. Shattered clay pigeons, beer cans, and plastic shotgun shells lay scattered through the tall grass leading up to an oak tree, whose trunk was torn in the middle and bent at a right angle.
A holey target hung from the dead oak.
“People attach targets onto trees, nail them up or hang them, and after repeated shooting, the tree will eventually get so damaged that it’ll just die,” Kuyper explained. “We’ll see this over and over again. We’ll see stumps where a tree used to be standing, but it’s just been totally shot up.”
Because the tree in question was the only dead one in sight, Kuyper said shooting was probably the cause. Though getting a few bullets in a tree won’t hurt it, once there’s enough to start chipping away at its protective bark, the tree becomes more susceptible to deadly insect infestations.
Many of the victims are ancient oaks aged hundreds of years, Kuyper said.
“We saw some areas where trees had been shot at so many times, they would eventually get holes blown through the middle of them,” he said.
And the threat to trees doesn’t end at bullets in trunks—recreational shooting is a relatively common cause of forest fires. The last five years have seen at least two shooting-caused fires in the northern portion of Los Padres, according to fire reports provided by ForestWatch.
On June 9, 2012, a shooter firing into the same hillside where Herrera and Martinez set their target sparked a fire that burned for four days and covered 18 acres. Less than a year later and about a mile down the road, a shooter using exploding targets instigated a fire that spread across 51 acres and burned for more than a week.
But the big stuff happened farther south: In 2002, an informal backwoods shooting contest against an abandoned van started what’s now known as the Wolf Fire in Ventura County’s piece of Los Padres. The fire scorched 21,645 acres of forestland, required more than 2,000 firefighters, and cost more than $13 million, according to ForestWatch’s report.
And Los Padres can’t afford to lose its vegetation. Kuyper said the forest is home to some rare ecosystems, including blue oak woodlands.
“That’s something that’s irreplaceable,” Kuyper said. “The trees are already pretty stressed right now with the drought. We’re seeing quite a bit of tree mortality in the forest because of that. So adding even more definitely has a big impact.”
So what now?
The forest is essential. It removes carbon from the atmosphere. It provides water purification and biodiversity to the earth. It’s a major source of wood materials, aesthetic beauty, and recreational land for humans. And according to Davis, it lays claim to “the intrinsic right to life that all plants and animals have.”
Harming and polluting it is not an option, Davis said.
“Recreational firearm use is an acceptable use of public domain, but people should be responsible for themselves and responsible for their mess,” he said. “Personally, I don’t like it. If I go somewhere and there’s trash and it’s polluted and it’s a mess, I can’t relax. I’ll have to clean up after other people before I can relax.”
ForestWatch’s proposed solution: Adopt the same restrictions as other forests in Southern California, where recreational shooting is permitted only in specific areas and banned everywhere else.
“That way, people have a specific area to shoot at, the impacts in terms of the lead and all that are concentrated in a specific area rather than spread out across the whole forest, and trash gets cleaned up,” Kuyper said. “Here, it’s just kind of a free-for-all, and people for the most part don’t take responsibility for cleaning up their own trash, let alone somebody else’s.”
Los Padres Forest Service actually agreed to adopt such restrictions in 2005, but the rules were never implemented. ForestWatch’s request is for the Forest Service to make good on the ban it planned more than a decade ago.
“It’s easier to enforce a forestwide ban than it is to enforce these little piecemeal measures they have around the forest,” Kuyper said.
But for shooters like Herrera, such a ban doesn’t sound so enticing.
“That would suck,” he said. “I would be sad. It’s my favorite place to shoot. I come out here and can just be peaceful, with no one bugging me.”
Los Padres off of Highway 166 is Herrera’s go-to site after a bad day, when he knows “going out and shooting some guns” will make him feel better.
“Some people like to play golf,” he said. “I like to go shoot.”
Contact Staff Writer Brenna Swanston at [email protected].