Nearly a decade ago, two Utah men used picks, shovels and other tools to blaze an illegal 7-mile all-terrain vehicle trail through Recapture Canyon, damaging ancient cooking structures, rock walls and other priceless artifacts.
Today, the Bureau of Land Management is considering a proposal by local officials to designate the southeast Utah canyon as an official motorized route, setting off a vigorous debate over how to balance the protection and promotion of American Indian sites on public lands.
The agency last week wrapped up a monthlong public comment period and this spring is expected to release an environmental assessment on the proposed 14-mile trail, which would traverse one of the most archaeologically rich counties in the nation.
San Juan County submitted the right-of-way application in late 2012, arguing it could promote economic development in the town of Blanding, about 3 miles west of the canyon, while reducing the threat of improvised trails.
"It would provide a much-needed, well-signed series of routes, thus reducing the proliferation of trails created by users trying to find a travel route," San Juan told BLM in its application. "We recognize the importance of protecting this important resource while at the same time providing opportunities for people to view and learn about the sites."
But archaeologists, conservation groups and the Hopi Tribe said BLM should reject the proposal, arguing it would reward the rogue trail builders and increase the risk of vandalism because the riverine canyon is currently accessible only by foot or horse.
"Rewarding this type of illegal behavior in southern Utah is opening a Pandora's box," said Liz Thomas, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is opposing the right of way along with the Grand Canyon Trust and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
Protection of American Indian sites is a sensitive issue in the Four Corners, where federal authorities estimate 90 percent of sacred sites have been plundered. In San Juan, where until the 1920s Blanding residents were paid by the University of Utah to hunt for ancient pots, experts estimate looters have raided most of the county's 28,000 known archaeological sites.
Known by some as a "mini Mesa Verde," the canyon in southeast Utah contains an unusually dense collection of Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years, including ceramic hearths and storage cisterns as well as cliff habitations, ceremonial kivas and ancient trash heaps -- evidence of a resident population.
It also includes the remnants of old stock corrals and a wood-framed house from as recent as the mid-20th century.
Kenneth James Brown, 70, and Daniel Lee Felstead, 41, of Blanding, helped build the ATV trail in 2005, which involved cutting old-growth juniper trees; moving stones; and installing rock cribbing, drainage pipes and a wooden bridge, according to one witness. In 2011, they were fined $35,000.
"They didn't have any criminal intent and probably didn't know they were doing anything wrong," said Nick Sandberg, San Juan's public lands coordinator. At the time, off-highway vehicles were allowed on almost any BLM lands in the county, including Recapture Canyon, he said.
BLM in 2007 shut down the trail to prevent further damage. Months later, a report it commissioned found the trail builders had caused more than $300,000 in archaeological damage that would cost the agency more than $90,000 to restore and repair.
But the real damage could not be quantified.
"The unauthorized ATV activity has permanently and significantly diminished the cultural heritage value of the archaeological resources at these sites to Native Americans and the American public as a whole, as well as their scientific value to archaeologists," said the report by Archaeological Resource Investigations of Missoula, Mont., and Western Cultural Resource Management Inc. of Farmington, N.M. "These values will never be the same as they were prior to the irreparable damage that has occurred."
Management plan bars ATV use
BLM in 2008 issued a resource management plan barring future ATV use in the canyon, while allowing 2,820 miles for motorized recreation elsewhere. Critics of the Recapture trail say there are ample places for motorized recreation in San Juan.
Moreover, Recapture Canyon is "one of those rare canyons" in Utah that contain year-round water flows -- which occur on just 1 percent of BLM lands in Utah -- and cultural resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places that are not already open to ATVs, SUWA and its partner groups said.
"BLM has to protect these cultural resources," Thomas said. "It's another example of BLM not taking that responsibility seriously."
Brian Quigley, assistant field office manager at BLM, said the agency does not feel that designating the right of way would encourage future illegal trail activity.
Sandberg said the ATV trail would be unlikely to increase vandalism and looting because more eyes in the canyon would help deter would-be thieves. Moreover, the application has been revised a couple of times to avoid affecting cultural sites, he said.
It no longer traverses one of the most archaeologically sensitive southern legs of the canyon.
"This could be a boon both to local residents and worked into some kind of tourism development for Blanding," he said.
There is an annual San Juan ATV safari in September with upward of 100 riders, and local businesses would like to see that grow, Sandberg said. Riders from Wasatch Front could be persuaded to visit the canyon.
But if BLM grants the right of way -- which would likely last 30 years -- conservation groups want to know whether the agency is willing to terminate the route if looting or vandalism occurs or if air or water quality diminishes.
As well, they're worried about BLM's law enforcement capacity.
According to a resource study BLM commissioned in 2007, future potential impacts from ATV access include artifact loss, wood cutting, vegetation and soil damage or looting. "Such impacts may be expected based on past experience, and to unfold over time," the report says.
While the unauthorized excavation and removal of American Indian cultural relics is illegal under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the black market for looted artifacts is a chronic problem in the Four Corners area, according to federal officials.
In 2009, a two-year multiagency undercover operation in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico involving a wiretapped FBI source recovered 256 native artifacts worth an estimated $335,685. Two dozen people were charged with theft of U.S. government and tribal property (Land Letter, June 18, 2009).
Some of those deals took place in Blanding.