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A San Juan County commissioner tired of waiting for the Bureau of Land Management to decide whether to allow ATVs back into Recapture Canyon is rallying a group to flout federal law and ride into the canyon next month.
Commissioner Phil Lyman says his May 8 ride will be a protest against the BLM's lack of leadership.
Recapture Canyon, near Blanding and rich in archaeological sites, has been a sore spot in the long-running debate about motorized access to southeastern Utah's public lands. The BLM closed it to motorized use in 2007, and two Blanding men were sentenced in 2011 to pay $35,000 in fines for constructing illegal trails there.
Ever since, the BLM has been reviewing San Juan County's proposal to establish an ATV trail there.
"They [BLM employees] are saying their hands were tied," Lyman said Wednesday. The delay, he believes, is a result of BLM fears over a lawsuit from environmentalists. "That's not indicative of an agency with jurisdiction," Lyman said.
But wildlands defenders say Lyman's May 8 ride would set a precedent that could undermine decision-making and the rule of law, particularly in the wake of the BLM's retreat last weekend from a roundup of trespassing cattle in Nevada. That came after 1,000 people, including armed militia members, gathered to protest the federal roundup.
Lyman's ride would not be the first time rural Utah leaders led a motorized parade into a sensitive area in defiance of BLM rules. In 2009, protesters rode up Kane County's Paria River through a wilderness study area. BLM officials took no action against participants.
The BLM closed Recapture Canyon to motorized use in 2007 after trail builders caused more than $300,000 in damage to archaeological sites. Lyman claims the damage is not even visible and he has no idea where it is, although others have described it as "stunning."
In an op-ed published last week in the Deseret News, he invited the public to join his May 8 "excursion."
"Come and see for yourself," he wrote. "I think you will agree that the real damage is the debris in the trail, the barricades blocking access and the warning signs placed at every turn."
Many consider Recapture a "mini-Mesa Verde," which suffered irreparable damage from trail construction, according to historian Andrew Gulliford.
Granting a right-of-way, besides rewarding illegal behavior, could accelerate damage to the canyon's granaries, dwellings and other 1,000-year-old features of ancestral Puebloan culture and encourage illegal pot-hunting, said Gulliford, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Association stressed the canyon remains open to people on foot and horseback.
"It's closed to one type of use and that's motorized," said SUWA's Moab-based field attorney Liz Thomas. "BLM determi ned that use was damaging cultural sites and you can't replace those resources. If they are damaged they are gone."
San Juan County officials propose establishing a 14.3-mile network of motorized routes in the canyon's northern portion, accessed from four trailheads. Most of the network would follow existing routes, but the project would require about 2.3 miles of new trails.
The county, which would be responsible for construction and maintenance, has relinquished its claims to the southern end of the canyon as a concession, Lyman said.
While BLM's Utah office would not comment on Lyman's protest ride, a spokeswoman said the agency is still working on an environmental assessment analyzing potential impacts. The BLM expects to release it for public review and comment this summer, spokeswoman Megan Crandall said.
SUWA and other environmental groups oppose the project, saying it would further imperil the resources the closure is designed to protect.
"You shouldn't grant a right of way for an illegally constructed route," Thomas said. "It's not necessary for transportation and it's not in the public interest."