Getting Local Government to Build a Range: Taber, Alberta, Canada

    Maybe it’s more common in the USA for the County/Municipal District to dedicate time and money to develop a range, but up in Canada most local governments will throw up as many obstacles as possible for new places to shoot. That’s not the case for one facility in Southern Alberta, and I’ve been following their construction.

    From the side of Highway 864, the Taber range doesn’t look like much. It’s blended into the prairie landscape, with a little bit of dirt work visible. The sign outside hints at something more: “The Municipal District of Taber supports the historic right of ownership and use of firearms by law abiding citizens.” But it’s not until I launch the drone and get an aerial look at the space that I really understand the vastness of this project and the caliber of the facility being built here.

    I meet Morgan Rockenbach, president of the Taber Shooting Foundation, and he shows me around the new Taber Shooting Complex. When completed, there will be six distinct range spaces, parking space for up to 300 vehicles, and could theoretically have as many as 70 shooters on the line simultaneously. Currently the facility consists of a 100m pistol and rifle range, a 600m centre fire and silhouette range, a 200m rifle bay, a set of 5 action ranges, one 50m pistol bay, and an archery hillside. All fit into a 1/4 section of land with the wide open expanse of Alberta prairie behind each backstop.

    The original site, before any development took place.

    On December 10th of 2015 the Chief Firearms Officer of Alberta was on site to inspect the ranges and confirm that what they were building built according to the plans and photographs the foundation had submitted. In Canada, there is a Chief Firearms Officer for each province that signs off on handgun transfers, license renwals, and certification of ranges. When I visited the 100m range was open and functional, and the 600m, 200m, and 50m pistol bay were all in the final stages. Those are all open now, and the action ranges went live last year.

    And that’s not the end of the project either. Plans have already been drawn up for a full shotgun space with skeet, trap, and sporting clays, along with an on site camping space. But it’s been a marathon of work just to get here.

    The Taber Pistol and Revolver club has been active since the 1970s, using an indoor underground range inside the town of Taber. They’re an institution in the local shooting community, and in October 2010 at their annual general meeting MD of Taber councillor Ben Elfring came as a guest. He brought up the idea of building a range on Municipal District land, explained that the Municipal District had land available, and would support the construction of a range that would provide their constituents with a proper place to shoot.

    Sept 2012 was the first official meeting of the Taber Shooting Foundation. The initial foundation setup was actually done by the MD Council, and the first executive board made up entirely of Councillors. At that very first AGM, they each resigned and handed over the executive to the current group of shooters who began to project of designing and building the range.

    The new executive featured the directors of disciplines who’s members would use the imagined range: members from the nearby town of Vauxhall and Taber Fish and Game Associations, Southern Alberta Rifleman’s Association, Taber Archers and Bowhunters Association, Cowboy Action Shooters and the Taber Pistol and Revolver Club all stepped up to form the Shooting Foundation’s executive board. Rockenbach gave up his position at the Pistol and Revolver club in order to chair the new foundation.

    Morgan Rockenbach inspects the dirt work

    The MD did have some conditions though, four years later Ben Elfring is still on the executive board of the Taber Shooting Foundation, and there will always be a representative on the board who’s role is to liaise with the Taber MD Council. That executive also has a veto ability in case they feel a certain decision by the foundation would conflict with the Municipal District. That ability has never seen use, and Rockenbach says the real advantage of having a counselor on the board is the ease of consultation. Rather than formally approaching the MD to present various issues and requests, having a counselor in the executive provides a sounding board.

    There were initially 3 plots of land discussed as potential sites, but between the road access and natural bowl of site SE 35-10-17-W4, it stood out as a front runner for a range location. The working group of MD administrators and Shooting Foundation executives went through 6 drafts of the range layout before settling on the final configuration.

    When I spoke to Derrick Krizsan, an administrator at the MD of Taber, he explains that one of the goals with designing the Taber Sport Shooting Complex was to “maintain the aesthetics of the prairie landscape.” The natural shape of the land formed a bowl, with 10m of dirt between the high and low points. When the machines bored into the ridge all the dirt they took out making the 600m range was used to form the berms of the other ranges. Remarkably, the construction project was “substance neutral.” No new dirt had to be brought in for the berms, and no excess dirt had to be removed from the range area. Everything was just shuffled round over months of heavy machine work to create the bays you see in this article.

    The range occupies 1/4 section of MD land, right next to the Taber Motor Cross Club on Town land. If you’re going to enjoy a noisy sport, you may as well do it right alongside another noisy sport, right?

    The land is owned by the MD and leased to the range, currently on a 10 year lease. But the MD has a vested interest in seeing the range succeed and last much longer than that. In November 2014 it was announced that the MD Department of Public works would make their staff and equipment available over the winter in order to get the dirt work completed and ranges ready to go. In what is normally the off season, the MD employees were out in the snow carving out backstops and access roads.

    It’s that remarkable level of support that really sets the Taber Shooting Complex apart from other ranges across the country. While older ranges struggle with their municipal districts, and have to fight against encroaching development or be shut down, the MD of Taber has put its full support behind the shooting sports, and fostered the growth of a world class facility.

    The range uses a .338 safety template, so handguns, shotguns and the vast majority of center fired rifles are available. They initially sought a .50 BMG template from the CFO, as there is a real scarcity of .50 certified ranges in this province. But the issue of distance to residences came into play, and ultimately the request was turned down. There are lots of .50 BMG owners in Alberta, but the CFO requires a minimum 4.2km of clear space behind the backstop of any .50 rated range, and even then, 5km is preferable.

    Membership in the Taber Shooting Foundation is currently open to anyone, and is $100 per year. Every range member is also a range officer, and goes through a training and procedures briefing as part of their membership. When multiple shooters are on the range, the first person there takes on the role of Range Safety Officer to call ceasefires, establish firing lines, and generally keep things flowing.

    The electronic key fob system behind the automated gate is also networked with the MD council, so they can see when the range is in use and how many members are on site. A plan for security cameras is also on the table, to ensure site security and responsible use. Krizsan explained the construction of the range almost as a necessity for the community. “Without these types of facilities, where can you go? People will still find spaces to shoot. We want them to do it safely, so this is as much a public safety project as a recreational one.” And the Taber area is certainly a shooting community. Alberta has one of the highest per-capita ownership rates of restricted firearms. At 4,799 per hundred thousand people, the province is second only to the Yukon. And the Taber area is no exception.

    Many of the ranges are designed with action shooting in mind, with a floating firing line and 7m high berms on multiple sides to allow for courses of fire with targets multiple angles. Whether that’s police training, IDPA, or other competitive and defensive disciplines, it means an area that is purpose built for this kind of moving and shooting. I’ve competed at a lot of ranges across Alberta, and when you’re trying to setup an action event on a static 100 m range, the options for a match director can be pretty limited.

    The Taber Shooting Foundation doesn’t have many members yet: only 250 of the projected 1000. As a result the range supplies have largely been donated by local individuals and businesses. Raw materials, wood for target stands, belting for target boards, the entire sign in shed along with its lockers, first aid kit, and RSO vests were all donations.

    Which is not to say the club is broke. Beyond the exceptional support from the Municipal District, the Taber Shooting Foundation has had some stellar support from the community. The Alberta Conservation Association provided a $37,000 grant for the electronic gate and site fencing, and the foundation secured a provincial grant from the Community Facility Enhancement Program for $75,000 for range development.

    Even the town of Taber has contributed to the project.

    The club house was originally an administration building in Vauxhall for the Bow River Irrigation District. When BRID was ready for a new building, they were told it would cost $50,000 to have it demolished. Instead, the Shooting Foundation asked for the building, and made a presentation to the Town of Taber to explain their project and the cost of moving the building to the range site instead. The Town of Taber was on the same page as the MD, discussed and voted immediately to pay the entire $40,000 bill to move the building 40km from Vauxhall to the range.

    This is not the first community enhancement project the MD of Taber has taken on. In fact, it’s not even the first range they’ve worked on. In 2013 the Vauxhall Fish and Game range needed a number of upgrades to their backstops and shooting positions to meet the Alberta Chief Firearms Officer’s new safety requirements. The MD of Taber took that project on, and upgraded the range. Beyond that they’re also involved with supporting the Taber Gymnastics club, the Vauxhall baseball society, and other recreation boards inside the district. But the range on Highway 864 has been an MD project from the very beginning.

    As the range grows and expands, the quality and quantity of shooting events in Southern Alberta will no doubt expand along with it. The shooting sports are still growing fast, and Taber is a pitch perfect example of how those sports can be a part of the wider community.

    Edward O

    Edward is a Canadian gun owner and target shooter with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. Crawling over mountains with tactical gear is his idea of fun. He blogs at TV-Presspass and tweets @TV_PressPass.