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Firearms center proposal discovered by lawyer

May 15, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

Matt Ward was poring over federal budget documents for his job as an environmental lawyer when a proposal to spend $24.9 million to build a firearms training center near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., caught his eye.

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Ward, who chairs the nonprofit land trust organization Harpers Ferry Conservancy, was immediately concerned.

The 327 acres in question represent about one-third of the land the conservancy has been working to add to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Ward and other historic preservationists are worried that noise from a shooting range would hurt tourism.

They are particularly concerned that Jefferson County residents had no input into the decision. They wonder when the public would have learned about it if Ward had not had the good fortune to find the proposal.

Funding for a shooting range for federal agents is included in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd's 2001 budget request.

Sen. Robert Byrd's office could not provide details about the plan Monday, including exactly where the training center would be built. Neither could a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs Service.

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Byrd, D.-W.Va., contends the training center could be built without endangering the historically sensitive aspects of the area, including School House Ridge, where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson surveyed his 14,000 troops before his famous siege and capture of Harpers Ferry in 1862.

The Customs Service needs better training to respond to terrorist threats at U.S. borders and to fight the drug war, according to the Senate committee's recommendation.

A lead agency would be appointed to oversee development of the center, which would also be used by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and selected federal, state and local law enforcement officers.

Byrd's spokesman said the proposal, which was introduced in an agricultural budget subcommittee last Wednesday, is in the early stages of the budget process. Congress typically approves the budget in the fall.

Already in the proposed 2001 budget is $2 million to preserve one section of School House Ridge known as the Murphy Farm, which had been slated for residential development.

The Harpers Ferry Conservancy has been pushing for Byrd's support to add 1,000 acres to the 2,300 park.

Park Superintendent Don Campbell had no comment about the training center proposal.

Scot Faulker, president of the Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said he believes that a shooting range would destroy the park's integrity.

"It is an unmitigated disaster. It's the wrong project, in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons," Faulker said.

He called the Harpers Ferry area a natural amphitheater that would amplify the sound of gunfire a mile away.

Even if it could be done with sensitivity to neighbors, preservationists fear that the Customs Service, under the Treasury Department, would not be a good steward of the land, which is now owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service intended to use it for a training center, which was instead built near Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Byrd told the conservancy he would need to have public support before backing the park's expansion.

A public hearing showed the idea was popular with area residents. The Jefferson County Commission voted 3-2 last fall to support an expansion.

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