When Mike Walmsley first saw the illegal firing range that was set up in the Echo Lake area, he could hardly believe his eyes.
“It was terrible,” said the Westlock County Rural Fire Department chief.
“As a shooter myself, I would be bloody embarrassed to see what people had done out there. There was a hole in the ground that looks like it was the side of a big dugout. It was just filled with garbage — old TVs, old appliances, spent ammunition, live ammunition. It was so thick you could walk along the garbage without touching the ground. It was disgusting.”
The range, located at SW19-TWP59-RGE23-W4M became known to authorities in 2015 after a substantial wildfire. Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) subsequently shut down the site for 28 days beginning on June 26, 2015
“When we responded to the fire, we found that it was essentially an illegal shooting range and (it was) improper use of firearms that basically lit this fire,” commented Walmsley.
“They would dump stuff off there and shoot the hell out of it. There were trees cut off from rifle fire. It was a mess.”
Since the debacle, Walmsley and a few others have been trying to figure out a sensible fix.
The solution? Establish a made-in Westlock firing range to fulfill local sport-shooters’ needs.
“I have been in contact with (Alberta Environment and) Sustainable Resources and Development, and they are in agreement with the idea and right now we’re looking at a number of different parcels of Crown land throughout the county,” he said, adding that he was looking at five different locations. “We’re going to try to pick an acceptable one and go forward from there.”
While the range is still merely an idea, Walmsley is hard at work trying to find a suitable location for the range. As a .22 calibre bullet can travel in excess of two miles, the location will need to have very specific features.
“There’s very strict federal guidelines,” he said. “It all has to be inspected at every level of construction and while it’s being operated. The RCMP is heavily involved in the entire process.”
Currently, the nearest firing range is run by the Fish and Game Association in Barrhead, which is a members-only club and has a range of 300 metres.
Walmsley noted that he would like the Westlock range to eventually feature both pistol bays for handguns as well as a 1,000 metre “F-Class” range for long-distance target shooters.
“That’s definitely a dream,” said Walmsley.
“I’ve got some interest from international shooters in something being established locally. Something properly ran and properly constructed, it would be fantastic.”
The nearest F-Class rifle range is currently located in Humboldt, Sask. Walmsley conceded that he would likely have to build up to a 1,000-metre range to start, however.
“Something in the 300 to 400 metres, I think that’s a keyhole,” he said.
“We’ve looked at a couple of locations that definitely would suit the need for a shorter range and would afford expansion in the future.”
Walmsley added the most-likely scenario would be setting up a pistol range to start the project.
“There’s a lot less velocity and a lot less distance, so a lot less area is needed. They are a lot less problematic.”
Walmsley stressed that so far, all that has happened is discussion, and whether the range happens or not would depend largely on the amount of interest.
“Right now, we’re just exploring the options,” he said.
“To say that it’s definitely going to happen or not, I have no idea. The initial decision for usage is up to (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development.) Once it crosses that threshold, then we need locals’ permission.
“If we get one or two people who say
‘Not in my back yard,’ then it doesn’t happen. To find an area that is suitable, is allowed by the government and to have no people oppose it, that might be our biggest hurdle.”
For Walmsley, establishing an official range is an important step to reducing firearm shenanigans in the county.
“You’re always going to have the small percentage whose idea of a good time is to get drunk and shoot things,” he said. “We’re trying to get away from that mentality, but without a decent place to go, how do you start to get away from that?”