MARS HILL -- Peggy Kasuba had just given a tour of damage to Mars Hill from ATVs and target shooters when, as if on cue, we encountered a target shooter with at least six rifles.
Robert Burkard was taking his nephew and nephew's friend out for target practice, which is perfectly legal on unoccupied Crown lands. There are four sites that people use as unofficial rifle ranges in the Mars Hill Wildlife Management Area, about 70 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
So what did Burkard have to say for himself? Surprisingly, all the same things Kasuba said.
"There isn't a gravel pit in Manitoba where you don't see empty brass (shell casings)," he said. "Unfortunately, people come out here on a weekend and drink beer and shoot the bottles."
He belongs to a private range and only brought his nephew to Mars Hill because his nephew doesn't have club membership. "We take out more than we bring," he said, referring to their targets staked into the ground. But he was critical of some others who have turned the place into a garbage dump. It's a landscape of shot-up TVs, computers, an Xbox, bottles, mattresses, chairs, as well as discarded bags of household trash. Tens of thousands of spent shells litter the grounds. Shattered glass is underfoot.
As for ATVs and dirt bikes, "they rip the hell out of the environment," Burkard continued. He owns a quad but if he wants to go riding for fun, he goes to a gravel pit.
"When you go through this vegetation, it's not heavily rooted, it's fragile. You have guys in their big machines, they're just ripping it apart."
Woman are from Venus and target shooters, ATVers, and illegal garbage dumpers are, apparently, in Mars Hill.
What has frayed local nerves even more is someone recently went around shooting up road signs and end-of-driveway mailboxes from a pickup truck. A bullet was even fired through a restaurant wall. RCMP are investigating. It leads people to wonder if having unofficial shooting ranges in their backyard is attracting undesirables.
The damage from ATVs and dirt bikes here is different from other areas, explained Kasuba, a local resident. On mud trails, the vehicles make ruts. Here, they spin their wheels, kicking up sand (it's part of the fun of trail riding) and soften up the trails so they are impassable for regular vehicles. That affects everyone from hunters -- it's good grouse-hunting country -- to sightseers.
My vehicle got stuck in sand within five minutes. (I had to get the wheels rebalanced afterward, too.) We frequently had to drive off the trail and onto vegetation because the sand on trails was so badly carved up. In many parts, the trail was steeply banked from sand being sprayed. Dan Mosquin, 76, who has lived in the area all his life, said the trails were packed down and easily travelled before the ATVs and dirt bikes began showing up.
Mars Hill -- it's kind of like Mars when you compare it to the rest of Manitoba's geography -- is a largely aspen-jackpine forest on top of a sand beachhead from former Lake Agassiz.
The area, which covers roughly 3,400 hectares, boasts nine species of wild orchids.
Everyone, from local politicians to Manitoba Conservation officers, is trying to find a compromise solution for users. In April, over 300 people turned out at a public meeting in Beausejour to voice concerns.
However, Manitoba Conservation will not distinguish ATVs and dirt bikes from other vehicle traffic, said Dennis Brannen, a Manitoba Conservation wildlife biologist. Instead, the department has a proposal to close off certain trails to all vehicles, which it hopes to present in October, he said.
As for the unofficial shooting ranges, the department plans no changes, Brannen said.
That's not enough for Kasuba, whose property borders Mars Hill, and who listens to gunshots going off all weekend. She and her husband picked up over 22,000 empty shell casings last year. You wouldn't know it to look at the grounds today.
Residents say the shooting is scaring people in the area and has become a public-safety issue. Last Monday, five people on horseback left Mars Hill when they started to hear gunshots, said Guy Sain, an area resident who met the riders.
Meanwhile, Burkard suggested the province adopt the same rule applied in Kananaskis Park in Alberta on motor vehicles: No rubber is allowed off the road.