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Blanding • Fed up with federal control over lands their families have used for generations, Blanding residents along with out-of-town supporters on Saturday drove all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Canyon, an area rich in prehistoric sites the Bureau of Land Management closed to motorized use seven years ago.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, acting, he said, as a private citizen, organized the ride. It commenced with a rally in Blanding's Centennial Park protesting what he and more than 200 supporters call federal "overreach" into local jurisdiction. Prompting the protest was BLM's failure to process San Juan County's applications for ATV rights-of-way in Recapture, although resentment toward the federal agency here runs much deeper and wider than the canyon that parallels Blanding a few miles to the east.
BLM officials said they were disappointed protestors broke the law Saturday, adding that federal officers recorded riders whom they intend to prosecute.
"We're not proponents of breaking the law," Lyman told reporters at the park, an hour before joining dozens of riders on the closed route. "This was a supervisor's discretionary closure. It's a county road. We claim it. Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn't mean they own the right-of-way that exists."
Part of a broad backlash against federal land management across the West, the ATV protest has attracted out-of-state activists eager to denounce federal authority over public lands. Some came decked in military camouflage and sidearms slung on their thighs. Militiamen approached by The Tribune declined to be interviewed.
Others protesters argued that BLM caved to special interests, like wilderness proponents and preservationists, in closing the canyon at the expense of the public, especially those who have trouble walking.
But the canyon offers a window into how ancient Native Americans thrived for centuries in an arid, rugged land, according to Jerry Spangler, of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.
"Damage to archaeological sites is permanent and the information about our collective past is then lost forever," Spangler said. "It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor. It is worse that protesters would be so blinded to their own insensitivity as to what others consider to be sacred treasures of their past."
While addressing the rally, Lyman voiced second thoughts about riding the closed trail, fearing illegal action would promote conflict and undermine his cause, which "is being tried in the court of public opinion."
"For 130 years people have been using that canyon as a highway," Lyman said. "To see it become a focal point of conflict is very painful for me."
He proposed riding the canyon rim instead, but rally goers shouted that idea down.
"It's not illegal. It's the people of San Juan County's land. It's your god-given right to go down and ride through that canyon and to hell with the media," shouted an armed militia member.
Soon at least 50 ATVs carrying multiple riders, including children and and one man with an assault rifle at the ready, motored across an invisible line in the dust beyond which the canyon is off limits as sheriff's deputies kept watch from the backs of horses.
"We are here to keep the peace and safeguard the constitutional rights of everybody," said San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge. "We don't want to see clashes between citizens, and clashes between BLM and militia. This is not going to be Bunkerville."
The sheriff was referring to BLM's recent stand-off with armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who has long refused to pay grazing fees. Also addressing the rally was Bundy's son Ryan, who counseled there is no such thing as federal land.
"I came here to re-open a road," he said to resounding applause.
BLM had no visible presence at the north end of the canyon where riders entered on an established road below Recapture Reservoir, but federal officers were there, according to BLM Utah director Juan Palma. He was concerned riders may have damaged artifacts and dwellings left by Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the canyon until 800 years ago.
"As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that," Palma said. "The BLM was in Recapture Canyon today collecting evidence and will continue to investigate. The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."
Fearing for their safety, many environmentalists stayed away from Blanding Saturday and there was no counter protest during the ride.
Josh Ewing, executive director of the non-profit Friends of Cedar Mesa, was in the canyon photographing riders as they passed below a cliff dwelling a mile into the closed part of the canyon. Most of the riders, including Lyman, turned around here, while a few continued south. From here the route was less a road than a meandering trail overgrown with sage and willow.
"The American tradition of civil disobedience doesn't change the fact that the rule of law needs to mean something," said Ewing, who lives in nearby Bluff. "I'll be very disappointed in my government if it doesn't follow through with upholding the law."
Lyman's two fellow commissioners had declined to endorse the ride, while former commissioners Mark Maryboy and Lynn Stevens criticized Lyman for promoting unlawful conduct. Stevens, who supports motorized use in the canyon, said driving it now is "unwise and irresponsible" and will only further delay the right-of-way application.
"Now they'll have to spend more time evaluating any damage the ride might cause. I've never seen a protest action that achieved the desired result," said Stevens, who serves on the governor's Balanced Resource Council.
State Sen Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, blamed Saturday's illegal stunt on Utah's chronic defiance of federal authority, particularly a "meaningless" new law that demands Utah take control of 30 million federal acres.
"Gov. Gary Herbert needs to be strong in defending the rule of law and protect this ancient heritage if he wants the federal government to turn more land over to the state. We do not live by mob rule," Dabakis said.
Public lands debate
The Salt Lake Tribune's Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate an Oxford-style debate on the resolution: "The state of Utah is best suited to manage public lands within its borders."
Who • House Speaker Becky Lockhart and Republican Rep. Ken Ivory will argue one side; former BLM director Pat Shea and University of Utah political science professor Dan McCool will argue the other.
When • Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The debate also will be broadcast live at KCPW 88.3/105.3 FM and will be live streamed at sltrib.com.