ASHFORD — From a clearing atop a ridge in northern Boone County, Chris Dunlap pointed out where he wants to build his fields of dreams.
“From that clearing there to the toe of that valley fill, we could have a 600-yard range,” Dunlap said. “Also, from that clearing to here is close to a mile. There’s room here for every discipline, from pistols to shotguns to long-range, high-powered rifles.”
Clearly, Dunlap has a vision. He’s at the initial stages of developing the Southern West Virginia Sportsman Center — a place where, as he puts it, “people will be able to shoot everything from Nerf guns to .50-calibers.”
The facility, once developed, will occupy an entire hollow just north of Ashford and just south of the Kanawha County line.
“We’ll have between 600 and 700 acres at our disposal,” Dunlap said. “There will be more than enough room for everything.”
The nearest comparable facility — the White Horse Firearms and Outdoor Education Center, near Buckhannon — has five ranges dedicated to pistol and rifle shooting. The ranges allow shots of up to 1,000 yards.
White Horse was built on 207 acres of surface-mined land in southern Barbour County. The property where Dunlap wants to develop his range complex has also been mined.
“Ninety percent of the land is reclaimed from surface mining,” he said. “Right now, that land is undeveloped. We want to turn it into a showcase for what reclaimed mine land can become.”
Right now, the hollow’s lower elevations are quite green, covered with small trees and dense thickets of multiflora rose and autumn olive. Only along a single ridge top can the highwalls associated with surface mining be seen.
Dunlap envisions a facility at which shooters would drive up the hollow, check in at a visitor’s center, and then drive from there to their chosen ranges. With more than 600 acres at his disposal, he hopes to develop ranges purpose-built for specific disciplines.
“I want this facility to attract shooters for [National Rifle Association] competitions, Civilian Marksmanship Program competitions, International Benchrest Shooters competitions, Precision Rifle Series competitions, and National Rifle League competitions,” he said.
Dunlap even envisions ranges for archers and crossbow shooters. “And I’m serious about a Nerf-gun range,” he added. “We want this to be a place where kids can come with their parents, have fun and learn to use firearms safely.”
Gary Begley, manager for Penn Virginia Operating Company, which owns the property, said his company is “100% supportive” of Dunlap’s effort to create a shooting facility.
“Shooting is part of our heritage here in West Virginia,” Begley added. “Having a first-class shooting center in Boone County, which needs a lot of [economic] help, will be a great asset to the area.”
Leasing land to shooting-sports enthusiasts is nothing new for the company. Eleven years ago, Penn Virginia leased 7 acres so local shotgun aficionados could create West Virginia Clays, Inc., a popular skeet-trap-sporting clays range built on a former surface mine less than 2 miles from the land where Dunlap plans to build his facility.
“I think each of the two facilities will complement the other,” Begley said. “Right now, there’s a big push to promote outdoor recreation in West Virginia. This will fit right in alongside the clays range, and all of it is close to the new [Ivy Branch] section of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail network.”
Begley said the facility might already be under construction if the company hadn’t had to wait for reclamation bonds on the property to be released.
“That happened late last year,” he added. “Everything is ready to go now.”
Dunlap hopes to start working on the range sometime within the next few weeks.
“I’d like to start leveling the shooting locations and improving some of the roads,” he said. “We’re working with Penn Virginia to try to get some of their equipment in here to help.”
The pace of the facility’s development, he added, will depend on two things: funding and volunteer help.
“We’ll need to move a lot of dirt,” he said. “We’re hoping to get support from some of the contractors that do business with the coal companies.
“We’re also hoping that local shooters will pitch in and provide some volunteer labor. Shooters are great about lending their time to activities that build up and promote shooting sports.”
If all goes as planned, Dunlap expects to open at least one range sometime during the summer.
“I want to at least have some shooting available by then,” he said. “Will everything be done? No. It’s going to take a lot more time and effort to get to that stage. But I think we’ll have enough done to get started.”
He plans to provide updates on the facility’s progress through a Facebook page he’s having designed. “That should be open soon under the Southern West Virginia Sportsman Center name,” he said.
The location for the fledgling rifle and pistol range seems remote, but Dunlap said it’s surprisingly close to major highways — 9 miles from U.S. 119 (Corridor G) near Alum Creek; 11 miles from Interstate 64/77 at Marmet; and, as he puts it, “only 7 miles as the crow flies” from the Cabela’s store in Southridge Centre.
Dunlap said he can’t wait to see the fruits of his imagination take shape as the facility develops.
“Words can’t describe what this place can be for everyone in the shooting sports,” he said. “I think it will be like in the movie, ‘Field of Dreams’ — build it and they will come.”