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Rifle Range Gets New Chief

November 23, 1989|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Michael Steger, a postman whose hobby is shooting, it is the realization of a lifetime goal. For the U.S. Forest Service, it is a chance to cure a 9-year-old ulcer.

The Forest Service last week chose Steger, of West Hills, to operate and manage the Middle Shooting Area, a narrow ravine about 15 miles northeast of Tujunga with a history of trouble. For years it has been the site of accidental shootings and an occasional dumping ground for bodies. Large appliances have been hauled in as targets and left behind as bullet-pocked trash.

The selection left the Forest Service "really happy--I mean, really happy," said Chris Rose, Tujunga district ranger for the Angeles National Forest. "People can't have alcoholic beverages up there, only biodegradable targets are allowed, and people aren't supposed to shoot across the road. Those all get violated, as far as we can tell, pretty commonly."

The area will shut down temporarily in January for renovation and reopen in late February or early March, Rose said.

As private concessionaire of the 1.5-mile area in Upper Big Tujunga Canyon, Steger, who plans to quit his job as a North Hollywood postman, will be relatively free to institute his own rules, collect fees, sell ammunition and shooting supplies, and hire his own employees.

The mail carrier said he plans to keep the range tightly controlled. General Forest Service rules that prohibit the dumping of trash and the use of illegal weapons, alcohol and drugs will be strictly enforced, he said.

Steger said he will establish three shooting areas on the range, with at least 95 individual shooting stations, as well as a supplies and refreshments store and office. Employees--he'll open the range with six--will monitor all the shooting areas, he said.

The Forest Service will collect 5% of Steger's annual revenues, officials said. They declined to speculate on how much money they could reap from the privately operated business. But with scores of shooters during weekdays and hundreds now using the range on weekends, Steger is confident that, with a $6-per-user fee, he and the federal government will turn a profit. "Most of the places I had been to out here were open ranges, and I was dissatisfied with the way they were operated," Steger said. He had not visited the middle area before bidding to operate it, he said. "My goal is basically to set up an environment where you wouldn't mind taking your family shooting with you."

Sixteen untended shooting areas were established by the Forest Service in 1980, but five have been shut down permanently because they were unmanageable or unsafe, said Kim Brower, a Forest Service spokeswoman. The middle area itself was closed temporarily in 1988 for redesign after two people were accidentally killed at the range.

A 13-year-old boy died in December, 1987, after a bullet he fired at an old car's wheel rim ricocheted and hit him. About a year earlier, a Montrose man was fatally wounded by a stray bullet, Forest Service officials said.

And in October, the bodies of two men were found at the range, one with multiple gunshot wounds and the other shot once. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department homicide detectives still are investigating the shootings.

In addition, the area is littered with trash, including old water heaters, television sets and bottles and cans--all of which serve as targets. Wildlife is long gone from the area, said district ranger Rose.

Excluding the middle area, all but one of the areas still are open, uncontrolled ranges. Last year, a range in the Saugus district was turned over to concessionaire management and renamed "A Place to Shoot," Rose said.

"I think we're going to be leaning more to get concessionaires in all these areas, at least because of the safety and vandalism standpoints," Brower said. "A concessionaire can do a much more thorough job than what we'd be able to do.

"No matter how much we patrol or how many regulations we post, there's still a free-for-all" at the middle area, she said.

Brower and others say they are confident that Steger's proposal will eliminate those problems. They are not concerned about enforcement, they said, because sheriff's deputies have agreed to periodically patrol the area. The Forest Service itself will closely monitor Steger's operation for a time after it opens, officials said.

"I think once you have people in authority there that tempers don't flare as easily or as often," Steger said. "But I don't want my employees going out there and trying to enforce the laws themselves. I'd much rather move other people out of danger and let experienced people come in and handle it."

Steger, who owns about 16 guns, has never operated a range. But as a Marine, he was a range instructor at El Toro, has worked at a gun shop and is a member of the National Rifle Assn. And Steger often goes to target ranges for shooting practice. He tried unsuccessfully five years ago to start up a target range. The effort failed because of lack of money, he said.

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