By Jim Waymer, FLORIDA TODAY
OSCEOLA COUNTY -- Most days, only cow moos crack the silence of this vast pine forest about 25 miles west of Melbourne.
One day, Smith & Wesson also will echo across the land -- much more so than the occasional gunfire clap from seasonal hunts.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to convert 360 acres of the 16,295-acre Triple N Ranch Wildlife Management Area into a $2 million gun range, including a 1,000-yard rifle range.
Local gun enthusiasts love the idea. They say demand far exceeds supply for such ranges in Central Florida. But the old citrus grove was bought mostly for habitat restoration, not firearms training, environmentalists argue. And some surrounding landowners say the range puts their property values and way of life in the crosshairs.
"This is the Florida I knew as a kid, right here," says Palmer Collins, 82, driving through his land, north of the planned range. "Our main worry is the effect it's going to have on the cows and the natural wildlife."
The retired trial lawyer from Indian Harbour Beach owns 340 acres that borders Triple N. About 30 head of cattle roam his rustic wooded expanse, which he sometimes leases out for hunting.
The shooting range would be built with a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which allocates money to states for hunting education. That money comes from a 10 percent excise tax collected on handguns and an 11 percent tax on rifles, shotguns, ammunition and archery equipment. Osceola County and private donations would provide the rest.
FWC officials hope to open the range within two or three years. It needs legislative approval to use the $1.4 million in federal money for the range.
The range would go on a cleared former citrus grove, covering about 2 percent of the overall wildlife conservation area, where wary turtles waddle to safety and bald eagles own the skies.
FWC officials say the range would help them comply with a state law that requires the agency to offer hunter education classes.
The proposed site for the range falls within 1,900 acres that the state's Preservation 2000 -- the predecessor to its Florida Forever land buying program -- bought in March 1997 for $1.67 million. The goals were conservation, improved public access to existing wildlife management lands and to provide more outdoor recreation and hunting.
Triple N is a mix of flatwoods, swamp, marsh and dry prairie habitat. Imperiled plants and animals that live there include the celestial lily, hooded pitcherplant, red-cockaded woodpecker, crested caracara and Eastern indigo snake, as well as the ocassional Florida panther.
It's not exactly a gun-free zone, though. Hunting is allowed on Triple N. People fish, horseback ride, raise bees and cattle there, too. Some camping, timber harvest and ecotourism also are permitted, under certain conditions.
FWC would design and operate the public shooting range. There are no plans for the agency's law enforcement officers to train there, said Bill Cline, FWC's hunting safety coordinator. They already use other ranges.
The idea for the Triple N gun range germinated several years ago from a citizens' petition to Osceola County Commission that generated several thousand signatures from gun enthusiasts, Cline said.
Beyond hunting education, FWC hopes to lure enough people to the range to make it financially viable by also adding pistol ranges, which are in high demand. Cline said the shorter distances on the pistol ranges also come in handy for FWC's beginner hunter safety training.
FWC ranks Osceola in the top 20 counties in terms of need for sport shooting facilities, based on the population and distribution of available public ranges, according to the the agency's management plan for Triple N.
The agency operates eight public shooting ranges statewide for its free hunter safety training courses.
"Any revenue that comes in goes right back into the facility," Cline said. "Obviously, we don't build things to get rich off the public."
He says the range won't clash with habitat restoration goals at Triple N or nearby deer and turkey hunting.
"There are no studies that show shooting ranges spook wildlife," Cline said.
But John and Kathryn Roberson, who live on a 1,400-acre ranch off U.S. 441, north of the planned range, see hunters steering clear of the range.
"I wouldn't want to hunt next to a shooting range," said Kathryn Roberson, adding that FWC should consider a site farther away from private property. "I think there are just so many other places where there isn't private land."
Cline of FWC said the agency has considered alternative sites and that Triple N is best because of its proximity to access roads and that fact that it's already disturbed and cleared land.
"There's only a certain distance that the public's willing to drive to get to a facility like that," Cline said. "We're not going to go in there and bulldoze down a bunch of pristine Florida to build a shooting range."
Nonetheless, Cline said FWC is consulting with an engineering firm to see if the firm agrees that the agency's proposed site is the best location.
He said the shooting area will be set back two to three miles from surrounding private property lines.
"We understand that the landowners are very big stakeholders," Cline said. "Because of their input, we're looking to make some adjustments."
In August, Florida Forever's Acquisition and Restoration Council approved a new management plan for Triple N, which includes the shooting range. Florida Forever, run by the state Department of Environmental Protection, is Florida's main program for buying ecologically important land to protect from development.
Audubon Florida opposes the change, saying the range goes against the very reason the state bought Triple N: as an important connector of surrounding conservation lands. The range will fragment habitat, disrupt wildlife and go on a site that was supposed to be restored to its native state, said Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon Florida. She says FWC failed to explore other more suitable sites.
"One of the reasons why this land was acquired in the first place was because it was contiguous and of limited fragmentation," Wraithmell said. "And basically what this proposal does is turn around and arbitrarily fragments it."
The Port Malabar Rifle and Pistol Club runs a 122-acre private shooting range off Malabar Road in Palm Bay. But John Shishilla, the club's treasurer, doesn't see the public range planned at Triple N as drawing shooters away from his club's range.
"I think there's enough need," Shishilla said.
"Guns are selling like hotcakes," he added. "(President Barack) Obama is the best gun salesman out there."
Triple N's remoteness makes it ideal, he said, especially for those just learning to shoot.
Bob Goforth of Merritt Island, president of the Space Port Gun Club, also likes the idea of a new range at Triple N, although he'd prefer one closer to home, maybe somewhere west of Cocoa.
"There is a shortage of ranges," Goforth said. "Central Brevard has got many folks that want to have a safe place to shoot."
For years, his group ran a sporting clays range and clubhouse at KARS Park on Merritt Island before it closed several years ago, after lead from bullets and other metals contaminated soil and groundwater there.
FWC officials say the range at Triple N would follow more modern practices to contain lead, including backstops with lined bottoms. Lead would be monitored and mined periodically for recycling.
Palmer Collins doubts all the state's reassurances. The retired trial attorney vows to take legal action to protect the value of the land he so adores.
This wooded frontier tends to tap such rugged, independent instincts in the many who venture here for a freedom only the forest can provide. On this recent day near Triple N's southern border, an American bald eagle soars above Donovan Crews Road, the dirt road that will be the gun range's main entrance.
Just over Collins' property line, a group of wild turkeys scamper off into thick palmettos as he saunters along his land and ponders the future of his beloved solitude.
"It's kind of like the Garden of Eden for me," Collins said. "I love this land."