Union County Proposed Shooting Range Near Appalachian Trail

Spring 2021 View full PDF newsletter | See more articles
ForestNews Union County Shooting Range Update. By David Govus

In 2018, Union County, at the behest of the private Union County Gun Club, proposed a gun range on Forest Service (USFS) property. Union County Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris and Sheriff Mack Mason enlisted the aid of Joyce White, Georgia Rural Development Director and former staff of Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture.  Perdue, whose Department includes the USFS, was soon receiving regular briefings on the project.

Georgia ForestWatch (GAFW) was concerned because the range would be adjacent to the Mark Trail and Brasstown Wilderness areas, within a mile of the Appalachian Trail, and could leach lead into headwater streams.  The existing underused Chatuge Target Range is located less than 4 miles away from the proposed new site.

GAFW and its members reviewed nearly 10,000 pages of project documents.  GAFW and over 200 others submitted comments opposing the project, and more formal objections were filed to this project than any other project in recent years.  The USFS dismissed these comments and failed to protect the congressionally designated Wilderness areas.  

In March 2020, the USFS issued a Special Use Permit to Union County that required “sound mitigation,” including enclosing the firing area on three sides with acoustical baffling. A robust new acoustical study of firing weapons at the range site documented noise levels similar to what ForestWatch had recorded in our live fire test years earlier.  However, in March 2021, the range steering committee found excuses to dismiss all of the recommended noise mitigation measures.  ForestWatch sent a letter to Forest Supervisor Ed Hunter pointing out areas where the project is not being implemented as planned, such as the addition of a septic system, and asked the Forest Service to honor all prior commitments for the project, including noise mitigation and lead management measures.

Construction is estimated to cost $2.4 million— your tax dollars at work for a private gun club.

Fall 2019
ForestNews By : Nick Nichols

Last October, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced a proposed Special Use Permit for a target range to be located on Chattahoochee National Forest land in Union County. Located off Highway 180 near Brasstown Bald, the 15-acre gun range would be constructed by Union County on property leased from the USFS.  It would be managed by the private-membership Union County Gun Club, and on most days, would be used exclusively by Gun Club members or the Union County Sheriff’s Department. 

The National Environmental Policy Act requires the USFS to conduct environmental studies on certain proposed activities like the proposed gun range. This process includes requirements for public notice and “scoping” of the proposed action; preparation of draft and final reports; soliciting and responding to public comments; draft decision of approval or rejection; an objection and objection resolution period (ended 9/23/2019), and then a final decision.  Approximately 225 comments (75%+ opposed) were submitted on the public notice and scoping; 70 comments on the Draft Environmental Assessment; and 30 objections to the Draft Decision for Approval. The Forest Service has now issued its final Decision and Finding of No Significant Impact authorizing the project.   

Georgia ForestWatch continues to strongly oppose a target range located one mile from the Appalachian Trail (directly down range), one-half mile from the Brasstown and Mark Trail Wilderness Areas, and adjacent to the Brasstown-Russell Scenic Byway.  The proposed range is less than 3.5 miles from the existing under-capacity Chatuge Gun Range, also located on USFS lands.  

Shooting range site with Appalachian Trail along the ridgeline. Photo Credit: Don Davis

ForestWatch conducted a test that indicates the constant noise generated by the shooting range, from dawn to dusk, will be heard by users of the Appalachian Trail hikers and campers in the two adjacent wilderness areas and by nearby residents. We recorded a decibel level of 78.5 on the Appalachian Trail, far exceeding the “annoyance” level of 55dB.  The tests, noise modeling and other studies conducted as parts of the Environmental Assessment, report or project noise levels significantly less than those recorded by the GAFW. ForestWatch also has concerns about errant bullets, lead contamination, and increased siltation of adjacent streams. The environmental documents have been disappointing in the lack of comprehensiveness and inaccuracy of the analysis and conclusions.  Significant questions have been asked and deficiencies pointed out to the USFS, but these things have not been addressed. This unnecessary proposal has the potential for significant permanent adverse impacts to the unique qualities of the Chattahoochee National Forest.ForestWatch appreciates and supports the legitimate need for a shooting range (many of our members are hunters and shooters), but there is already a target range 3.5 miles away in Towns County.  We believe there are far more suitable locations for such a facility and have asked Union County and the USFS to identify and evaluate other potential locations. Georgia ForestWatch, and our allies (Georgia Sierra Club, Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and others) will continue to oppose this project.  You may view the project documents, comments, responses and objections to form your own opinion at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54559.

Fall 2019
Letters from the public and organizations like Georgia ForestWatch typically improve Forest Service project proposals.  Sometimes though, projects that receive initial Forest Service approval still contain major issues. In those cases, people may formally object and have the decision reviewed by the next official up the Forest Service hierarchy, though there are some requirements that must be satisfied in order to object.

The Southern Environmental Law Center will file an objection to the proposed Union County Target Range project on behalf of the Sierra Club, Georgia ForestWatch, and their members.  

The objection period for the project is open through September 23, 2019.  Information about the project is available here.  

Under Forest Service regulations, individuals may also file an objection but only if they submitted timely, prior written comments to the agency about the same project.  You may also only object based on issues raised in your comment letter and must include a statement linking the issues in your objection to discussion of the issue in your comment letter.  Individual members of Sierra Club and Georgia ForestWatch may not file objections based on issues raised in the comment letters submitted by those organizations, unless they raised the same issues in personal comments.  

The exception to the requirements above is that anyone may raise an issue in an objection if the issue is based on new information that became available after the opportunity to comment.

Instructions on how to file an objection and a list minimum requirements that must be included in an objection (such as contact information, etc.) are available in this cover letter announcing the opportunity to object.  

The Forest Service must respond to objections before it can implement this project.

What’s Going On
On October 12, 2018 The U. S. Forest Service released a Scoping Notice announcing the development of a 15-acre shooting range in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. The location of the proposed shooting range (off Highway 180 between mile markers 18 and 19) is less than one mile from the Appalachian Trail (AT) and approximately one-half mile from both the Brasstown Bald and Mark Trail Wilderness Area boundaries. The Union County government will be the primary permit holder of the target range, although the day-to-day operations will be managed by the Union County Gun Club.

Why it matters
Georgia ForestWatch is concerned about the noise generated by the shooting range, as the gun reports will likely be heard from the AT as well as by hunters and campers in the two nearby Wilderness Areas. The actual need for such a project also remains in question, as there is already an existing shooting range 3.5 miles from the proposed site in nearby Towns County.