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The federal Bureau of Land Management has put a San Juan County commissioner on notice that his planned May 10 ATV ride into a southern Utah canyon closed to motorized use would violate federal law, exposing him and his fellow riders to criminal or civil sanctions.
But it is willing to join him on a pre-ride tour to identify sensitive sites to avoid if he affirms in writing that the gesture won't be construed as BLM consent for the ride.
Phil Lyman, a Blanding accountant and conservative Republican, is organizing the ride into Recapture Canyon to champion local jurisdiction over Utah's public lands. County officials have long sought a right of way for ATV trails into the canyon just east of Blanding, and the BLM has been weighing their petition for more than seven years.
The agency closed the canyon to motorized use in 2007 to protect its American Indian ruins and other archaeological resources after an illegally constructed trail was discovered there.
"I strongly urge you to cancel the proposed ride in the closed portion of the canyon," Lance Porter, BLM's Canyon County district manager, wrote in an April 28 letter to Lyman. "To the extent that you or anyone else uses a motorized vehicle within the closed areas, BLM will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties."
Those penalties are spelled out in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which authorizes the BLM to close areas to motorized use when such traffic damages archaeological sites and other resources the BLM is obligated to protect.
The penalties for violating closures can range up to a $1,000 fine and 12 months in jail.
Arguing the ride is a "peaceful and intelligent action," Lyman believes riding there would not violate the law because he says the BLM closed the canyon arbitrarily.
"Our action is not aggressive or mean, it is purely defensive and intended to demonstrate that, despite heavy-handed federal action against us and our community, we still look to the BLM to respect the law and to follow their own rules and regulations which protect local interests and appropriately recognize State and County jurisdictional authority," wrote Lyman BLM in a response on county letterhead.
San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams says he sympathizes with Lyman's impatience with the federal agency, but the three-member commission declined to endorse the ride because its insurance policy may not cover actions that are deemed illegal.
"What Phil is doing is on his own," Adams said.
Some Blanding residents support Lyman's ride, but one constituent who opposes motorized use in Recapture gave a harsh assessment.
"There is no place in any county government for elected officials to be scofflaws," said Lynell Schalk, a retired BLM agent who lives in Bluff. "If Commissioner Lyman can't live up to his oath of office to obey the law, he should resign his post."
BLM officials declined to specify Thursday how they planned to hold violators accountable, but they did say no additional officers would be brought in to patrol the area.
The BLM letter cautioned that riders could face additional penalties if they damage sites protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
"Many of these exceptional archaeological resources will be damaged by the proposed illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon. The BLM-Utah has not and will not authorize the proposed ride," said state director Juan Palma.
A BLM-commissioned inventory documented 31 such sites within 15 meters of the trail, which passes through 16 of them.
Lyman wants agency archaeologists to accompany him into the canyon before the ride, to alert him to sensitive sites and allow him to document their current condition. He made the request to BLM Monticello area manager Don Hoffheins, and Porter set the condition for a written acknowledgment that the tour doesn't imply approval.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose Utah district covers San Juan County, agrees with the point Lyman is making about the federal government's "heavy hand," but, like other political leaders, he stopped short of endorsing illegal behavior.
"The Obama administration [has] not reached out and built the relationships with farmers and ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts," Chaffetz said. "This is very problematic. It's not going to be solved overnight but when they don't have working relationships, so many of our residents feel abused."
The county's key complaint against the BLM over Recapture is the delay in getting a decision about the right-of-way request. But Porter's letter explained that the project has been beset by "many unusual situations and activities," such as criminal probes into the construction of the trail Lyman's ride would follow.
It was illegally carved in 2005, and an investigation led to the prosecution of two local men.
The trail also required a damage assessment, an engineering review and an extended consulting process that recently yielded a crucial agreement among the BLM, the county and other interested groups. It proposes a plan for allowing motorized access to the canyon.
Porter cautioned that the May 10 ride "will very likely hinder and possibly delay our ability to complete this process," which it hoped to wrap up soon after the release of a required environmental assessment this summer.
Reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.