Bend-area resident Allan Curr, an accomplished shooter trained to use firearms in self-defense, used to practice shooting at locations along China Hat Road southeast of Bend. China Hat intersects at Knott Road, providing quick access to the Deschutes National Forest, but also a convenient but illegal dumping ground, a shelter for the homeless population and a tucked-away area for drug activity.
Curr explained why he no longer shoots at forested locations on China Hat. "Several reasons. One is undefinable. It's sort of a gut feeling—the hair on the back of your neck—something's not quite right for me to go out there that many times anymore. The other thing is, we're getting a few shooters—not a lot—who aren't safe," he explained.
Sharon Preston, who heads the group, Ladies of Lead and trains women in the safe use of guns, says, "If you go out China Hat, it is a disaster out there. The damage that's been done from people shooting out there – it looks like a war zone. It is absolutely horrendous what they've done out there."
What's being dumped
It's not uncommon to see abandoned vehicles in the woods with hundreds of bullet holes in their rusted out and destroyed frames. Other items include used washers, dryers, TVs, computer screens, mattresses and box springs, tires, tarps and enormous amounts of spent cartridges left behind by shooters. "We see garbage dumped out on the forest less than five miles from the landfill," says Sgt. Nathan Garibay of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Department. Curr says, "You see more television sets out there and you see junk being shot up and left. I'm concerned about safety."
One dumping area contained carcasses of several elk. Was it illegal poaching, or were these elk harvested legally and the remains placed there for coyotes to feed upon? Deschutes County law enforcement officials and the U.S. Forest Service would not speculate, other than to say poaching occurs in Central Oregon.
The destroyed frame of one abandoned car just off China Hat—and about a mile from the Lost Tracks Golf Course—is a favorite target for shooters, with countless bullet holes in it and dozens of discarded shells in the snow.
Jean Nelson-Dean, of the Deschutes National Forest, says, "Unfortunately, there are people who don't have an outdoor ethic. They don't have an ethic of leave no trace. They don't have an ethic of pack it in and pack it out. Human feces are a huge issue on our forests in places," she added.
According to the Sheriff's Department, there were approximately 516 incident reports on China Hat in 2016. Besides common incidents including 151 traffic stops, there were 48 incidents of illegal dumping, 34 suspicious circumstances and 23 unwanted subjects reported. There were also 10 reports of abandoned vehicles.
In 2005, the USFS confirmed that one of its workers received a thigh wound from a stray bullet while working in the China Hat area. While officials did uncover the location where the shot originated, they never found the shooter.
Evidence of Drug Activity
Lost Tracks resident Allan Curr says his grandson often drives his Jeep on the backroads of China Hat, where he's seen evidence of heavy drug usage. Deschutes County Sheriff's Sgt. Garibay says deputies patrol China Hat routinely, sometimes even daily in order to reduce crime. A sheriff's patrol SUV is often parked near China Hat and Knott Road where people heading into the woods often congregate.
Patrolling the area is difficult, though. China Hat meanders for miles through the woods and there are numerous side roads and trails to patrol. Sgt. Garibay says law enforcement hasn't seen drug labs, but there is evidence of drug use in the area. "We'll see needles periodically at a dump site, or from people who have gone out and used a needle and thrown it outside their car," he said.
A Clash of Users
Bill Warburton is an avid mountain biker and a youth cycling coach at the Bend Endurance Academy. He likes to ride the trails throughout Central Oregon and along China Hat, but avoids the area between Lost Tracks and Bessie Butte on the south side of the road. "There's a ton of trash and I really don't ride in that area because there's just too much shooting and too much trash," he says.
Last summer, Warburton was riding his bike and discovered an area where shooters were shooting across the bike trail. "People are just not paying any attention to what they are doing out there," he said.
He also found two areas where people had set up dangerous shooting ranges. "I came across two different zones where people had set up shooting ranges across the trail. They hung plastic buckets in the trees and were back 50 yards shooting at the buckets that were on the edge of the trail," he explained.
With numerous caves near China Hat, cave exploration is a popular recreational pursuit there. Boyd Cave, the Arnold Ice Cave, Skeleton Cave and Hidden Forest Cave are among many options to explore the hundreds of miles of lava tubes in the Bend area. Wanderlust Tours of Bend offers caving as one of its many tour options for explorers.
Wanderlust's President Dave Nissen says he's seen widespread abuse on the south side of China Hat Road, as it leads into the forest. Wanderlust's cave tours are located several miles from the heavily trashed areas, and where there is excessive shooting.
"I go out there for a peaceful, natural experience and you encounter the folks living in the area and trashing the place. It sends the hair on the back of your neck a little bit awry because you have the feeling the people are armed and it's not a comfortable situation," he told the Source Weekly.
Nissen says he sees more trashing on the south side of China Hat than the north side. As one of the state's most popular and award-winning tour companies, Wanderlust is authorized to guide tourists into the caves located on Forest Service land. He emphasizes the fragile nature of cave ecosystems, which the company helps protect.
Nissen is also proud of his company's efforts to clean the area of garbage. In its first year of leading tours into the caves, Nissen says company employees organized a major cleanup. "It was the washers and TVs that had been shot up, abandoned and left. Our first year of cleaning up Skeleton and Boyd caves we had 552 pounds of trash that we pulled out of there."
Wanderlust organizes cleanup efforts on the first Saturday of every May, and Nissen says each year much less trash is coming out of the cave areas thanks to the annual cleanup. Wanderlust and its team of volunteers also clean the roads leading to the caves. He adds that the north side of China Hat where volunteers coordinate their efforts each year is better cared for than the south side of the road.
Shooting Where It's Safe
Shooting on most federal lands such as national forests is not against the law. Jean Nelson-Dean of the Deschutes National Forest says, "Shooting—if you do it in a safe manner—is legal," she says. Still, instead of shooting out in the forest, gun educator Preston advocates for shooters to use gun ranges such as the Central Oregon Shooting Sports Association (COSSA) range located east of Bend on Highway 20.
The U.S. Forest Service recommends two locations for safe target shooting in the area – both cinder pits at Coyote Butte and Cabin Butte. While those locations are routinely used by shooters, others will seek privacy and solitude in other parts of the forest to target shoot using handguns or hunting rifles.
Cleaning up the Forest
The U.S. Forest Service and the Deschutes County Sheriff's office collaborate on enforcement in the Deschutes National Forest. But at 1.8 million acres, the forest is one of the state's largest, making enforcement of dumping and drug activity difficult at best.
"It's a forestry problem that only good people can volunteer to solve," says Curr. Wanderlust President Nissen concurs. "When anybody gets together and says we're gonna do this, you can make a great difference. It would be like a massive adopt-a-road program," he says. Curr says he's willing to volunteer and encourages other shooters to join in a cleanup effort. "Let's all get together, bring a trailer and we'll clean the place up."
The Deschutes National Forest is planning a cleanup event or events on China Hat in the summer. Although no firm date has been announced, interested volunteers can contact Stacey Cochran at Stacey.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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