BLANDING – More than 200 people gathered in Centennial Park in Blanding Saturday morning, giving public outcry to the Bureau of Land Management for its restriction against off-highway vehicle use of trails through nearby Recapture Canyon. After rallying, the group took their protest mobile through the canyon, ignoring the prohibition, without any resistance from authorities present.
The BLM closed the canyon to motorized vehicles in 2007 with the stated purpose of protecting ancient cultural sites and artifacts. Conflicts over the restriction have continued since the closure and, most recently, in December 2013, the BLM invited public comment on a right-of-way application made by San Juan County for a trail system through the canyon. According to the BLM’s webpage on the proposed project, last updated Wednesday, an environmental assessment of the proposal is being prepared, although no completion date is specified.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who led Saturday’s protest, said he had tried to get the BLM to come out and negotiate, but they hadn’t done that.
As militia and others gathered, some with guns on hips and some carrying the “Don’t Tread on Me” yellow flag, rock band Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” blared in the park. Special interest groups were represented, and San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldridge was there to keep the peace, he said, along with sheriffs from four or five other counties.
There was no visible presence of BLM officers at the protest, St. George News columnist Dallas Hyland said from Blanding. The BLM later issued a statement indicating its officers were present and observing the activity; that statement is included below.
Although the protest was supported by some who also participated in the April resistance to BLM enforcement officers at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, Saturday’s protest ride in Blanding may not have been inspired by Bundy.
Stefnee Turk, representing the San Juan Alliance, told Hyland that this protest ride was in the works before the incident at Bunkerville occurred. She said the militia presence was not necessarily invited, Hyland said.
Nonetheless, armed militia members were plentiful Saturday morning, some of whom had been at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Bunkerville. The Nevada rancher’s son Ryan Bundy was present with his wife and children. Ryan Bundy had a box of small booklets of the U. S. Constitution with him that he was autographing and distributing at the rally.
Lyman showed support for the Bundys, giving them a welcome and taking care to say that violence was not wanted at the protest.
Whose land is it?
In a rally that sought to challenge the authority of the federal government over the land in question, those addressing the crowd had differing ideas about whom it belongs to.
Steve Curry, of the Citizens Action Network, drew analogy to Bunkerville. He said:
We took Nevada back for the people with the BLM on the defensive and we put the BLM on the defensive. I think Utah now; we are going to take Utah back.
Curtis Yanito was there representing himself and the Navajo Nation. Yanito was born and raised in San Juan County and appealed to the crowd to help the Navajo Nation. He said:
Hey, if you win in this fight against the government, you’ve gotta help us, too, to get our land back.
But Yanito also said:
When you people refer to this land as ‘yours’ or you use the word ‘mine,’ we don’t have that word in our language; we say ‘Mother Earth.’
The main point Ryan Bundy made was that he wanted everybody to quit using the term “federal land,” Hyland said; that that term does not exist. Ryan Bundy said:
These lands do not belong to the public of the United States; they belong to the people of San Juan County. I am not from San Juan County, I am just a visitor. I came here to open a road. If they’re not going to open a road then I’m going home.
The protest ride
The protest ride proceeded to the canyon through a handful of different points of access, Hyland said, with protesters riding OHVs, ATVs and even horses. Eldridge had said he was there to keep the peace, Hyland said, so he questioned the sheriff about the protesters breaking the law:
“Aren’t they breaking the law?”
“Yes, they’re breaking federal law but not county law.”
“Isn’t the county sheriff beholden to federal law?”
“I’m beholden to federal law.”
“You’re keeping the peace as people break federal law?”
Hyland said the sheriff laughed and turned his horse up-trail and rode off with his deputy.
In a statement issued by BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma Friday, he said: “The BLM-Utah will seek appropriate penalties against anyone who willfully violates the law.”
If any citations were going to be issued in connection with Saturday’s protest ride, Eldridge said, they would have come from the BLM, not his office. The Monticello Office of the BLM, which manages Recapture Canyon, has two rangers and was closed on Saturday.
Palma later issued the following statement Saturday:
Regrettably, after a peaceful rally in Blanding, Utah, a number of individuals broke the law by driving ATVs through Recapture Canyon, where ancient artifacts and dwellings may have been damaged by the riders.
As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that. The BLM’s law enforcement presence today focused on recording and documenting individuals who chose to violate the law by traveling into the closure area on ATVs.
We know from the archaeological record left behind in Recapture Canyon that the area was previously occupied for at least 2,000 years. Illegal ATV use within Recapture Canyon may have damaged many of these archaeological resources—all of which hold the history and tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region.
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.
BLM and Recapture Canyon
Conflict over the use of Recapture Canyon has been ongoing for at least seven years, since the BLM closed the area to OHV use.
Andrew Gulliford, professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, wrote in a February 2014 article for High County News about a scar seven miles long, four feet wide, running through the canyon east of Blanding. He said:
Sections of the trail ran right through 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites, bisecting one prehistoric village the size of a football field – all this in a place that archaeologists have described as a ‘mini-Mesa Verde.’
Gulliford criticized the BLM in his February article, noting that the same trail, which had once been the subject of a criminal investigation, was then subject to a request by the BLM for public comment, made in December 2013, on San Juan County’s right-of-way application to reopen the trail.
The right-of-way proposed an ATV system consisting of 14.25 miles of trails, three trailheads and signage.The design of the proposed action is primarily for an ATV trail system but motorcycles, mountain bikes, equestrian use and hiking would also be allowed, according to the BLM’s Environmental Assessment Bulletin Board, last updated May 7. Environmental Assessment is pending, according to the bulletin board. See the proposed trail system design here: Proposed Trail System Map – Construction – BLM Recapture Canyon May 7 2014.
There are more than 2,800 miles of trails on public lands that are open to ATV use within a short drive of Blanding, the BLM said in a release Friday; in other words, the approximate distance between New York City and Los Angeles. This extensive trail system offers OHV riders vast and diverse opportunities to ride and recreate on public lands in southeastern Utah.
In order to protect the rich archaeological record left by the Ancestral Puebloans, who called this area home for nearly two millennia, the trail was closed to motorized access in 2007. The BLM is committed to constructively addressing competing resource demands on public lands in the area and will continue to engage with the county and other stakeholders.
Public lands managed by the BLM in Utah contribute significantly to the state’s economy, the BLM said in its released statement, and have a positive impact on nearby communities. Diverse recreational activities on BLM-managed lands in Utah provided $490 million in local and national economic benefits in 2012.
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UPDATED 5:30 p.m. to include BLM statement issued Saturday after the protest ride.
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