This story has been updated here.
By JAMES M. ODATO
State Police officers began a three-month weapons training course at Mount Van Hoevenberg this week, startling neighbors with sustained bursts of assault rifles and shotguns and possibly violating terms of authorized activities in the state forest preserve.
The sudden and surprising shooting began Monday and continued every day for a few hours each morning. The firing is scheduled for weekdays of every week through mid-November as the State Police Troop B based in Ray Brook has identified the 1980 Olympic biathlon range as its permanent twice-a-year training site, said Trooper Jennifer Fleishman.
She did not have information on how it is the state police were allowed to use the Mount Van Hoevenberg site operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority. ORDA’s spokesman deferred all questions to Fleishman.
“It sounds like a terrorist attack and a swat team response,” said Wayne Failing, a neighbor to the mountain. “It’s like being at war. The whole peace and quiet of the valley is shot.”
He and others living and working near the ORDA-run facility reported being upset and shaken, some noting that the area is a residential, tourist, commercial and school zone. Students and staff at North Country School are within hearing distance, Failing said, and a school official advised neighbors that he couldn’t get through to ORDA about the weaponry within earshot of the private school for grades 4 through 9.
Neighbors said the shooting came without warning and the Troop B website has no alert.
Trooper Fleishman said 400 state police personnel, including investigators, will go through the biannual training at the site from now on.
The training has been conducted in Lisbon in Saint Lawrence County in recent years at a site leased by the state corrections department. Firing ranges at the federal and state prison sites in Ray Brook have also been used in the past. Fleishman did not know if the switch to the biathlon facility offered an improved or more affordable option.
She said she had received no complaints from the public. Told by a reporter of concerns, she said: “We anticipated to utilize this as our new permanent range.”
The state police use marked and unmarked vehicles and work on duty while firing at the range, she said. The shooters wear clothing that identifies them as police, and signs are posted about the training, she said.
Leaders of environmental groups were not aware of the activity and could find no law or plan that authorizes such training. William Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, briefed by a reporter, said: “That would seem to be very inappropriate if not illegal.”
The range training occurs as ORDA oversees a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of Mount Van Hoevenberg which would include a new biathlon course. Both the current firing range and the proposed new one would be in the forest preserve, Janeway said. A unit management plan and generic environmental impact statement calls for such courses for biathletes to use in winter sports competitions.
Jon Lundin, a spokesman for ORDA, declined to answer questions about the activity and ORDA President Michael Pratt did not return phone call messages.
“Our whole market here is about peace and tranquility,” said Failing, who rents cabins a half-mile away from the new training site. He said when the biathletes use the site, they fire .22 caliber rifles that emit a tinny sound. The state police weapons thunder, he said.
He and other neighbors noted that the state government advertises the region for its natural beauty and tries to attract families. “This is counterproductive,” Failing said. “I understand the state police need to train with automatic weapons somewhere, but this is a lousy pick.”
“It sounds like World War III out there,” said Tony Corwin, who operates South Meadow Farm Lodge and Maple Sugarworks.
“This activity is out of character with the usual ambient conditions on our campus and in our rural neighborhood,” North Country School Executive Director Todd Ormiston told the Explorer in an email noting that school is in session for the fall. “While we understand the need for this type of training, we are disappointed that the effect of the related noise on school children was not taken into consideration, and that no notice was given.”