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Idaho Falls Post Register


School shootings over the past couple years frustrate Dale Nelson of Oregon City as much or more than all Americans.

But while he fully supports Florida students and their call for attention to the national agony over lives lost, he's more focused than ever on a positive use for firearms.

Nelson, a 60-year-old retired biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, spends most of his spare time mentoring, nurturing and helping young people enjoy shooting sports.

He's the state director for Oregon and Washington High School Clay Target Leagues. Competitive clay target shooting, say sponsors, is the nation's fastest-growing — and safest — high school sport.

Under the guidance of volunteer coaches, and sanctioned by school districts across both states, competitors use shotguns to break clay targets, launched at random across tightly controlled shooting ranges.

In just two years under Nelson's guidance, Oregon's high school league has grown from three to 24 teams. Washington, where Nelson only recently turned his attention, already has three teams and is poised with Oregon to compete both statewide and nationally.

Established firearms clubs offer a variety of youth shooting-sports programs, which was the genesis in 2001 for the clay-target league's national movement.

A Minnesota gun club realized its membership was rapidly aging. An organizer recognized kids wanted to compete by shooting and today the Minnesota state league alone has 11,000 high school participants. Nationally, 28 states are participating and others join each year.

"Every parent is always looking for what turns a kid on," Nelson said. "This is just like golf; it's a lifetime sport."

Curiously enough, it's also touted as the nation's safest high school sport, without a single accident in its 17-year-history.

Young athletes competing in the high school league even include youngsters in wheelchairs, who typically have just as much talent and responsibility as others when it comes to shooting. "If someone has challenges, I want to talk with them," he said.

Nelson also coaches a year-round youth team, which competes throughout the Pacific Northwest, often successfully against adults.

Competitors must first complete a firearms safety course. "Safety is the number one priority of the league and we work hard to maintain our perfect safety record," Nelson said.

Girls, Nelson said, remain in the minority in Oregon leagues, but are usually as good and often much better than boys.

Participants supply their own shotguns and pay an initial $35 for insurance, patches and awards. Teams then pay host gun clubs for inexpensive ammo and clay targets at each trap-shooting event. Nelson said most clubs provide it at cost. The total seasonal investment is about $225, which he said is "minor in relation to other sports."

Oregon's member high schools range in size from Dufur, Crane Union and Echo in eastern Oregon, to powerhouses such as Medford, Wilsonville, Oregon City and Aloha.

Teams of five or more (no one is turned away) shoot against each other according to team size, posting and comparing scores online rather than head-to-head shooting.

Weekly events begin in April and culminate with a state tournament in June in Hillsboro.

It's up to each school to decide whether the clay-shooting team rates an athletic letter.

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March 1, 2018


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