We want to be community players, and we want to have them come onto our lands. If they're going to use them, they have to use them responsibly. Otherwise, you jeopardize the opportunity. —Kim Christy

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Thirteen tons of garbage have been hauled out of the Lake Mountain area so far as part of a massive cleanup project to preserve the recreational area and its hundreds of petroglyph panels.

Lake Mountain, located south of Saratoga Springs and west of Utah Lake, is a popular site for shooting guns and riding ATVs where private lands, trust lands and Bureau of Land Management lands are intertwined.

"We're just simply trying to create a paradigm shift that demonstrates a better stewardship by us as managers, and especially as the recreating public, to protect the privilege essentially," said Kim Christy, deputy director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

SITLA and Utah County are working together with private landowners to curb degradation of the area due to undisciplined recreational use.

"It's a long process," Christy said. "It's been many years that it's brought us to this level, but we're committed to try and turn that tide, and that's what we're starting with in this project."

On April 7, SITLA closed public access to 1,450 acres of particularly problematic trust lands that were heavily abused.

Shooters in the area have left garbage and the items used for targets such as refrigerators, VCRs, mattresses, tires, paint cans and even a car. Christy called it a "staggering" and "horrific" problem.

The perimeter of the closed area will be aggressively marked with signs, and the Utah County Sheriff's Office is "serious" about patrolling the area and enforcing the closures, according to Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Yvette Rice.

Fines could be potentially tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the offense, Rice said.

"There can be significant consequences or repercussions for starting a fire or defacing property," she said.

Cleanup began a week ago with workers and volunteers from the Boy Scouts of America, the Eagle Mountain mayor, members of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office Work Diversion program, private landowners and the archaeological community.

The area contains several hundred panels of petroglyphs, also called rock art, dating back 13,000 years to the Paleo-Indian people. The rock art tells the story of the area's inhabitants as they turned from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.

Nearly every petroglyph site has bullet holes from people both intentionally and unintentionally shooting at them, said Steven Manning of the Utah Archaeological Research Institute.

"If they're destroyed, then we don't have that chance to find out all the things about the people who lived here all these years," Manning said, "so it's an exciting place."

In May, a few hundred students will help clean up the dishwashers, chairs, computers and other shot-up items left behind.

The main culprits are "fly-by" shooters, not the core group of regular shooters, according to Dave Taylor, a shooter and outdoorsman from Herriman. Those who are really involved take care of the land, Taylor said.

"I've been complaining about it for years," he said. "I've told the shooters it's a matter of time before they start closing land."

Taylor said he visits the area almost every week with his kids or friends to shoot and enjoy the outdoors. He always picks up trash and takes it home, he said, but it looks about the same when he returns the next week.

"Having this land available, I mean private land, and for them to say you can use it, there's a responsiblity there, and on public land as well," Taylor said. "If we're going to use it, we need to take care of it."

More than 23,000 acres of trust land and thousands of acres of BLM land are still open for recreation, and restrictions will be relaxed as the project continues.

About 1.5 miles of roads will be decommissioned as part of the project. Christy said the ultimate goal is to create uniform loop systems of access, rather than spiderwebs of capillary roads that don't lead anywhere.

"What we're trying to stop is the people leaving the roads … (and) creating new roads," said Utah County Commissioner Doug Witney. "You can ride. We're not trying to impede that. We're just trying to stop people from destroying land."

Stakeholders are hoping to let brush grow over the unauthorized roads, and they're working on putting in an organized shooting range by 2015 to encourage responsible shooting.

"We want to make a difference," Witney said. "We want to make a change."

Christy said it's also a matter of public health and safety. Some BLM land nearby was closed two years ago for similar reasons and private landowners were complaining about shooting at or near their homes.

Along the closed BLM land, Utah County is working on a 6-mile fencing project on state Route 68 toward Soldier Pass Road. Along the fence will be a green stripping project. Crews will tear out trees and reseed the area to keep fires from spreading and to protect range animals.

The Lake Mountain area is no stranger to fires as a result of undisciplined shooting, including a 2012 wildfire that burned 5,500 acres.

"We think this is a good start," Witney said, "and we want people to understand that this is their land. Why come out here and trash it?"

SITLA administers 3.4 million acres of land across the state. Christy said the agency needs to make sure resources aren't compromised for their beneficiaries — principally the public education system.

"While we don't have our allegiance to the public necessarily, we want to accommodate them," Christy said. "We want to be community players, and we want to have them come onto our lands. If they're going to use them, they have to use them responsibly. Otherwise, you jeopardize the opportunity."

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Madeleine6