AUGUSTA — A state-owned shooting range in the Summerhaven gravel pits, closed in March because of noise complaints and a few irresponsible users, is back open to the public for limited days and hours and under the watchful eyes of volunteer range safety officers.

The free public shooting range drew 300 to 500 users a month before it closed, according to Craig Gerry, shooting range coordinator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. While the vast majority of those users shot there responsibly and safely, according to Gerry and Nate Webb, special projects coordinator for the department, a few did not. Some users of the then-unsupervised range off Sanford Road brought in items ranging from refrigerators and propane tanks to televisions and bottles and cans, shot them up and left them behind.

Some shooters also, apparently finding the designated shooting area in use by others, set up their targets on the side of the shooting area, which doesn’t have the approximately 10-foot-tall dirt berms of the designated shooting area there meant to keep bullets from leaving the range.

And others shot at night or early in the morning, prompting noise complaints from residents of the area, including the nearby Burns Road.

Tuesday morning the range reopened with a new plan. Hours are limited, generally starting mid-morning and wrapping up by early evening. And the range now may be used by the public only when a range safety officer is on the site.

“We’re controlling it so we have a better environment for people to come and shoot,” Gerry said. “Keep the problems with littering and items being left behind down. By controlling that and controlling the hours of activity, it gives the people who live in the area the opportunity to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet, and gives a positive outlook for, I think, everybody.”

The state turned the sandy area, already popular with shooters for decades, into an official shooting range in 2012, to give the public a free place to checks gun sights and do target practice. The idea was, and still is, to give people a safe place to shoot. More than 8 tons of debris was removed from the site.

“Everywhere you go, land is getting posted and closed off,” Gerry said. “If you don’t have an area where people can shoot safely and legally, they’re going to shoot somewhere else, causing property damage and causing problems. By opening (a public shooting range), you’re having some oversight and keeping behavior responsible. And that’s better for everybody.”

Gerry also encouraged people to shoot at one of the state’s many privately owned shooting ranges.

The schedule for the week ending Sunday, the first week the range was back open, was 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Officials said the weekly schedule generally will be similar to that, but not identical, because of varying availability of range safety officers. Updated range schedules and other information about shooting ranges in Maine will be posted online on the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shooting range website.

Range safety officers will be on hand when the range is open, to make sure people follow the rules, and to assist shooters if their weapons jam. The range safety officers have undergone background checks, have experience with firearms and underwent a daylong course.

“A lot of people are interested in shooting sports and interested in making sure the public has a place to shoot, and shoot safely,” Webb said, explaining why 11 area people volunteered their time as range safety officers at the site. “Our volunteers, so far, have come from all walks of life and just have an interest and passion for shooting sports. And the more help we have, the more opportunity we’ll have for this to be open.”

Gary Allen, a retired game warden who owns a local auto repair shop and is one of the 11 volunteer range safety coordinators, said wardens and others worked hard to clean up the area, which for years was an unofficial shooting range, and make it an official public shooting range, and they want to see it continue.

“This was a dumping ground for everything, and we cleaned it up,” he said at the range Tuesday, the first day it was open again. “All the work people put in here, people want to keep this range up and going.”

Those who wish to volunteer to become a range safety officer, which requires taking, if not already so certified, a National Rifle Association range safety officer course, may email Gerry at [email protected]

The entrance to the range is gated off, a camera monitors the site constantly, and local law enforcement patrols past the site regularly, officials said, to prevent unauthorized use. Officials said there has been no unauthorized use since it was closed to the public in March.

The approximately 100-yard-long shooting area has new shooting benches, made and donated by a local man who uses the range often, and metal ammunition boxes where spent shells can be discarded.

Those amenities pale in comparison to those included in a longer-term proposal to seek federal funds to make major improvements at the range, including the creation of three separate shooting lanes at 100, 50 and 25 yards from the target area, each with four lanes within them, separated by concrete barriers with overhead baffles, and a berm double the height of the current berm, with ballistic sand to collect bullets better. The proposed baffles and other barriers also probably would decrease noise coming from the site dramatically, Gerry and Webb said.

The proposal, which Webb said is likely to cost more than $100,000, would include a major cleanup of the site, seeking to remove lead from the property left behind by decades of shooting.

The money would come from a federal program funded by taxes on sales of firearms and supplies. The program has provided money the state used to allocate $1 million in grants, over the past three years, to fish and game clubs and other privately owned ranges, to improve their facilities.

A public information meeting is planned for discussing and taking input on the proposed range design plans for the Summerhaven shooting range, followed the same evening by a public hearing about the rules for the range. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Sept. 8 at Camden National Bank Ice Vault, at 203 Whitten Road in Hallowell.

In July the state closed the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s other public shooting range, the Fryeburg Shooting Area at the Maj. Gregory Sanborn Wildlife Management Area, because of problems similar to those that prompted the March closure of the Summerhaven pit. The department, as it has done at the Summerhaven range, plans to reopen it after developing a schedule of limited hours.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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