Protests are rising over a state plan to open a shooting range near Lake James, at the foot of Burke County’s rugged and renowned Linville Gorge Wilderness.
The site is on state game lands 70 miles northwest of Charlotte and would occupy only three of its 1,300 forested acres. State studies say gunshots heard from surrounding areas would be no louder than lawnmowers, boats or passing planes.
That didn’t reassure Burke County’s Tourism Development Authority, which grooms an outdoorsy image built around the mountain-rimmed lake. The authority says hikers “will be psychologically impacted by the gunfire noise – at any decibel level.”
A state study estimated the range could attract as many as 10,800 shooters a year.
The county is building a loop trail around Lake James that will come within 500 feet of the shooting range. Hikers regularly use the area to reach Shortoff Mountain and the gorge. The cross-state Mountains-to-Sea Trail also runs nearby.
“People could walk into that area completely unaware of the shooting range and think that people are just shooting randomly,” tourism director Ed Phillips said.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation, whose members include many hunters, said it is working with the state Wildlife Resources Commission to find another site.
“Basically, everyone who has spoken against the shooting range has not spoken against the range itself but the location,” said Richard Mode, a federation representative who lives in Morganton.
Well-heeled housing developments have sprung up around Lake James in recent years, but the communities closest to the range site are blue-collar.
The range also would be about a mile north of sprawling Lake James State Park, which attracted nearly a half-million visitors last year.
The wildlife commission, despite studying the site since 2013, says it is not wedded to the Lake James tract.
Although the commission is scheduled to make a decision on the shooting range at its May 21 meeting, “it’s not a done deal,” spokesman Russell Wong said. “If another site came up as an option, we would explore that as well.”
The commission did environmental assessment and sound studies and held public hearings in order to collect public comment, not ignore it, Wong said.
The commission “is evaluating wide-ranging input and perspective” it has received, Executive Director Gordon Myers said by email. That input will be combined with site analysis in reaching a final decision, he said.
The range is one of three the commission plans to build across the state as public interest in shooting sports rises. The commission opened three ranges last year and now manages a total of four.
A ground-breaking ceremony Monday will start construction of a range in Shelby in a joint project with Cleveland County. It’s expected to open in early fall. A range in coastal Pender County, north of Wilmington, is expected to be completed in late summer.
The environmental study commissioned by the state concluded that a Lake James shooting range would offer far more benefits than negatives.
By focusing gunfire, for instance, the range would contain thousands of potentially toxic lead bullets. The commission last month banned target shooting at two game lands – reserves for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation – in Pender and Onslow counties. Indiscriminate gunfire, it said, had destroyed habitat and become a public safety concern.
The state’s shooting ranges have high earthen banks to catch bullets; the proposed site at Lake James would have one 30 to 40 feet high closest to the lake. Most range use is free or for small fees. State rules prohibit reckless use of firearms or drinking at the ranges.
The state bought the site, naming it the Linville River Tract of the Pisgah Game Land, from developer Crescent Resources in 2005.
Because the purchase used a grant from the state Natural Heritage Trust Fund, it was dedicated as a nature preserve. The range would be in a buffer area of the preserve.
Morganton-based Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, which brokered the sale, said its intent was to buffer Linville Gorge from outside intrusions.
Executive Director Susie Hamrick Jones called the choice “illogical” when other state game lands for hunting and fishing are available in the region.
“There are few places on earth that attract people just because of their astounding beauty, where you can get away from the human-built environment into wilderness,” she said. “And this is probably the jewel among them.”