Rifle and shotgun shooting. There are merit badges for that.
And also a costly cleanup at a Scout camp on state trust lands in southern Utah’s scenic Tushar Mountains.
Since 1965, the Boy Scouts of America ran a popular camp near the head of Beaver Canyon through a lease with the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. The centerpiece of the 600-acre parcel was a shooting range, now a liability because the soils are permeated with lead from rifle rounds and shotgun pellets.
“There’s no perennial streams or water flowing in the area for this lead to get into,” SITLA official Bryan Torgerson told the agency board at a recent meeting. “That really works in our favor because nothing is leaving the site or has a chance to contaminate water.”
But without cleaning up the site, there is not much SITLA, which manages trust lands to generate revenue for schools, can do with the property. Appraised at $1.8 million, officials are hoping to sell the isolated holding surrounded by Fishlake National Forest near the Eagle Point ski area.
Trust land officials secured a solution to salvage the Tushar property, costing about $300,000 and the loss of dozens of trees, but the situation illustrates an environmental health concern across the state associated with firing ranges.
Target shooting occurs at both designated ranges and unregulated sites on public lands, where countless rounds are discharged every year. The Division of Wildlife Resources lists Utah’s 53 shooting ranges, many of them outdoors, such as the Kay Lee Public Shooting Range on Salt Lake City’s West Side.
A heavy metal sitting at the 82nd spot on the Periodic Table, lead is commonly used in bullets and shot. It is also a dangerous toxin that can accumulate in humans and animals, resulting in neurological damage. Unless the discharged ammunition is contained at firing ranges, lead can migrate off-site and leach into groundwater, posing a potential environmental hazard.
The Boy Scout camp is among several old shooting ranges in Utah participating in the voluntary cleanup program administered by the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. This program streamlines the process for remediating contaminated sites by responsible property owners under DEQ oversight.
Cleanups have been completed at a former police shooting range in West Jordan at 7725 South and 6400 West; the Salt Lake Gun Club, 208 S. Redwood Road, North Salt Lake; the Utah National Guard’s small arms firing range west of Vernal. In addition to the SITLA property, cleanups are in the works at the Carbon County law enforcement range in Price and the former Police Mutual Aid Association range in Parleys Canyon.
“When we are done with this cleanup, they essentially will give us a clean bill of health that can be recorded on the deed,” Torgerson said, “so that any future owners, buyers or interested parties can do a title search in perpetuity and that will pull up and show that this site has been properly dealt with. And so it provides a lot of assurances to future owners.”
The scouting organization relinquished its 99-year lease to the Tushar property in 2021 following its highly publicized bankruptcy and break with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was paying just $50 a year for the use of the property. SITLA is gaining at least $300,000 in improvements, including a recently installed well and ropes course, along with the lead mess.
The land is among the most beautiful in SITLA’s 3.4-million-acre portfolio, but the contamination limits the agency’s options for making money off it, according to Torgerson. The contamination is spread around a 2-acre area and is contained within the top 3 inches of soil.
SITLA plans to reduce the concentration below 400 milligrams of lead per kilogram, the federal standard at residential areas. Along the rifle firing line, the levels exceeded 16,000 milligrams, or 40 times that limit, Torgerson said. While the concentrations were much lower at the shotgun range, only about twice the health limit, this part of the camp is much harder to clean up because the contamination is spread over a larger area. It has also impacted the trees, whose trunks and branches were embedded with slugs and pellets “from top to bottom,” he said.
The only way to clean up the site was to cut down the trees, stack the wood and burn it, allowing the lead to melt and drip out. Conducted last winter when conditions were just right, the burning had to be done carefully to avoid volatilizing the lead and sending it into the atmosphere, Torgerson explained.
The plan is to gather up the ash and treat it along with the soil when the rest of the site is cleaned up. The unburned wood will be hauled away. One SITLA official took a piece of this wood back to the office and discovered shot was falling out of it.
For shooting ranges, DEQ ordinarily requires contaminated soil to be removed and deposited in hazardous waste facilities. For the Tushar site, however, it is allowing something different for the first time, given the site’s challenging location, according to Torgerson.
The soil is to be scraped up, treated on-site with special equipment to capture the lead fragments, then returned to the former shooting ranges. The cost is expected to be about $300,000 versus the nearly $1 million needed to haul 1,400 cubic yards of soil away.
SITLA has hired a firm based in South Dakota, called Range Recovery Technologies, which expects to complete the job this summer once the snow melts. The firm’s two-step process removes 98 to 99% of the lead from the soil, according to the company’s owner Brady Gross.
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“It all comes down to moisture content. If you’re in wet, darker, blacker soil, there won’t be much to separate. We just have to treat the soil,” Gross said. “But if there’s a physical round or BBs in the ground from shotguns, we have our own patented systems using air on the back of a trammel we built in-house.”
The screened soil is then treated with a powdery product that neutralizes any toxins that remain, he said. While the soil is put back on the ground, the recovered lead is sent to a recycler for processing to be used in ammunition, batteries and other products that use lead.
SITLA hasn‘t issued new leases for shooting ranges in more than 15 years because of their environmental impacts.
“We’ve known for some time that shooting ranges are problematic,” Torgerson told SITLA trustees, one of whom acknowledged to contributing to the problem at the Tushar camp in his youth. “We’ve really gotten away from that practice.”
SITLA owns three other parcels historically used for shooting, including another Boy Scout camp outside Moab.
“We are working proactively with those lessees to get in front of this thing,” Torgerson said. “We have bonding in place. None of those sites have the complex problems that the Tushars site has. The trees and mountainous, remote terrain are what drove up the costs on this one.”
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