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After more than a decade of analysis, the Bureau of Land Management on Monday decided to not re-open Recapture Canyon to motorized users, although it did agree to establish 6.8 miles of routes on the rim of the archaeologically rich canyon just east of Blanding.
The decision, which rejects San Juan County's right-of-way application, allows only non-motorized travel on the canyon bottom and its benches along Recapture Creek the scene of a 2014 protest group ride that landed San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman in jail for 10 days.
Still, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke framed Monday's decision as a win for recreational access.
"Recreation on public lands is a big part of what we do at the Interior Department and the BLM, but for many persons with disabilities or for people who just don't get around like they used to, our public lands aren't accessible without motorized vehicles," Zinke said in a news statement. "Allowing ATVs and other vehicles in Recapture Canyon will open up opportunities for people to enjoy our public lands while still protecting the cultural and natural resources that make the place special.
"On my first day in office I prioritized public lands access," he added. "I'm happy to continue that mission."
Yet the BLM's decision may not put the controversy to rest.
It falls well short with what San Juan County leaders and Blanding residents had demanded motorized access through the canyon from Recapture Dam on the north to a side canyon about four miles downstream.
The canyon has been a flashpoint in Utah's public lands battles since 2006 when ATV trails were constructed from the dam south to Perkins Road without authorization. After it was discovered the trail damaged ancient Native American sites, BLM closed 1,871 acres in and around canyon to motorized use. The move exacerbated local residents' resentment of federal management of the county's largely public land base.
Three years ago, the San Juan County Commission passed a resolution claiming a "valid existing" right of way through the canyon, citing historical use of the canyon as a transportation corridor by wagons and cattle.
Blanding City Council member Joe Lyman, who has spoken for the city on the Recapture controversy, said Monday he did not know enough about the decision to offer comment.
Local officials have long blasted the BLM for taking so long to process the county's right-of-way application, submitted around the time of the closure. The order signed Monday by Monticello field office manager Don Hoffheins formally rejects that application, but it does say the 2007 closure order will be reversed once damaged archaeological sites are stabilized.
"The closure is lifted because we have a decision and it is no longer necessary," BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant. "The decision provides for motorized access on the rim and to the canyon bottom trailhead. It does not authorize motorized use or trail construction south of the trailhead. We feel on foot and horseback is the best way to explore this area [along the canyon bottom]."
Environmental groups that oppose motorized use on Utah's sensitive public lands were pleased the BLM declined to allow motorized use through the quiet canyon, which is also rich in wildlife and scenery.
"That's definitely a win in our eyes, even though we were pushing for a decision that would not allow [motorized] use of the rim trails," said Susan Kearns of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. "Our hope is that ATV recreationists will respect this ruling and use only officially designated routes."
The new trails will tie into the existing Blanding to Bulldog Trail and will be served by trailheads at Lems Draw, Browns Canyon and in the canyon one mile below Recapture Dam.
"We worked with the county, environmentalists, motorized users. This was a compromise after years of discussion," Bryant said. "We can now work with the county without this hanging over our head. We will move forward on the development of trails in more appropriate places."
The BLM plans to erect signage and kiosks for distributing interpretation information and instruct visitors on proper use of the trail system. The rim trail will include eight turnouts that provide views into the canyon and the 800-year-old dwellings still standing under cliff overhangs.