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Blanding ATV enthusiasts insist federal authorities illegally exclude their machines from nearby Recapture Canyon, but their protest ride planned for Saturday has become a source of dismay for some tribal members whose ancestors inhabited this canyon long before Anglo ranchers ran cows there.
And some Navajos are incensed that the potential for confrontation has led to the cancellation of a weekend retreat for disabled veterans in nearby Bluff.
Officials with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office say an illegal ride, organized by an elected official, would be yet another gesture of disrespect leveled at American Indians' cultural heritage, which is embedded in the landscape and has been long pillaged by the descendants of San Juan County's Anglo pioneers.
The tribe claims an ancestral affiliation with the prehistoric Puebloans, who built cliff dwellings and kivas and buried their dead in Recapture Canyon between A.D. 750 and 1150.
"We believe the [Bureau of Land Management] should be providing more law enforcement to protect and preserve the cultural and natural resources for which it is the nation's caretaker, and not providing more motorized access to areas containing cultural and natural resources that it has demonstrated that it is unable to protect," Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, the tribe's preservation director, wrote in a May 1 letter to the BLM.
But the office's Terry Morgart concurred that a show of force could provoke a confrontation with anti-federal activists who may join the locals' protest.
"But if BLM keeps acquiescing, it will make it worse, too, because [ATV enthusiasts] will keep upping the ante," Morgart says. "What's to keep them from going out there anytime they want?"
Recapture Canyon enjoys no permanent protection, but the BLM closed it to motorized use in 2007, citing damage to numerous archaeological sites from illegal trail construction.
The county's right-of-way application, which would put the Recapture trail in local hands, has dragged on for eight years. The delay has prompted San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and other Blanding residents to stage Saturday's ride as a way to assert local jurisdiction over public lands that their families have used for generations.
Lyman's fellow commissioners declined to officially sanction the protest because the ride would break the law. His predecessor, Lynn Stevens, who supports motorized use in the canyon, denounced Saturday's ride as "unwise and irresponsible" and asserted it would only delay the county's application for a right of way along the route.
Lyman contends the protest is motivated by love of the land, and he says riders would prefer to avoid damaging cultural resources. He asked the BLM to show him where the trail crosses archaeological sites.
Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, pointed out in a statement Friday that vegetation and riparian areas can be restored over time, but damage to archaeological sites is permanent.
"It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor," Spangler said. "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."
The Wilderness Society added that the canyon is open to anyone who wants to hike or ride horseback.
"Plans to willfully violate federal law and to disregard other stakeholders and damage natural and cultural resources in the process are reprehensible," said Scott Miller, a senior regional director with the society, in a statement.
Lyman originally proposed riding the entire seven-mile stretch closed to motorized use, but he now plans to ride in and out on a 1.5-mile stretch on the canyon's north end.
In a Facebook post, he is directing participants to established trails on the canyon rim if they want to avoid violating the BLM's rules. The BLM warned him last week that it will pursue civil and criminal penalties against those who drive into areas closed to motorized use.
However, the agency has no plans to beef up its local two-person law enforcement contingent, and the county sheriff is taking the lead on keeping the peace.
But the ATV protest prompted the BLM to rethink its long-planned veterans retreat.
"This opportunity for healing, to help these men and women has been postponed due to the threats of illegal activities by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on behalf of those who desire to drive their ATV toys over the sacred ruins of others," wrote Willie Grayeyes, who chairs a nonprofit group lobbying to protect public lands important to the Navajo, in a letter submitted to The Salt Lake Tribune.
"Contrary to the beliefs of many, southeastern Utah was not an empty place that no one wanted just waiting to be inhabited by European settlers or discovered as a recreation playground, but rather it was and remains our home."
In partnership with the Sierra Club, the BLM had invited two dozen disabled veterans from around the county to gather near Bluff. Several Navajo veterans were expected to join them. Tribal members were to conduct a traditional warrior welcome-home ceremony and lead them to sacred places on nearby Cedar Mesa, according to Stacy Bare, an Army veteran who served in Iraq.
The BLM postponed the retreat until October out of concern that the Recapture ride would be a distraction.
"A lot of time and energy went into this. It's super disappointing. Riding a bunch of ATVs through [Recapture] is not helping anyone," said Bare, who now leads a Sierra Club program connecting fellow vets with public lands to help them recover from war and reintegrate into society.
"You can have free speech," he said. "We fought for those rights, but we didn't fight for them to do an illegal event."
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.