A county commissioner in southeast Utah is organizing an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through a river canyon rich in archaeological ruins to protest what he argues is an overbearing federal government.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said the May 8 ride through Recapture Canyon aims to assert the county's right to access federal lands, while prompting the Bureau of Land Management to reopen it to off-highway vehicles (OHV).
The ride, which Lyman publicized in a recent op-ed in the Deseret News, threatens another Western showdown over states' rights following BLM's failed bid last week to round up several hundred illegal cattle from public lands about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
BLM's roundup of cattle owned by rancher Cliven Bundy was backed by environmental groups and sanctioned by federal courts, but it attracted hundreds of protesters, many of them armed, and was called off amid threats of violence. Bundy does not recognize BLM's jurisdiction over the land and has been illegally grazing his cattle there for decades (Greenwire, April 14).
Lyman's ATV ride, which was planned well before the Bundy dust-up, carries a similar theme of a perceived breach of constitutional rights. But it's a dangerous trend, according to conservationists and legal experts who argue public lands are managed by BLM on behalf of all Americans, not just those who live around them.
"It's a freedom that's been taken without our consent," Lyman said in an interview yesterday, noting that the ride is not endorsed by San Juan County. "We have power and jurisdiction to do things independent of BLM."
On his Facebook page, Lyman takes a more revolutionary tone.
"As we approach independence day, let us contemplate what it means to be free and what we are willing to do to ensure that our children and their children inherit a free and flourishing San Juan County," he wrote March 2. "Remember that our revolutionary forefathers did not declare war, they declared independence, the war was only a consequence."
May 8 was chosen to commemorate the day that federal agents raided Blanding, Utah, homes in 1986 to confiscate what were believed to be illegally looted American Indian artifacts.
BLM declined to comment on the ride, but Juan Palma, the agency's Utah director, is trying to persuade Lyman to allow BLM's planning process to play out.
BLM closed Recapture Canyon to motorized recreation in 2007 after two Utah men used picks, shovels and other tools to blaze an illegal 7-mile OHV trail through it, damaging ancient cooking structures, rock walls and other priceless artifacts.
BLM's resource management plan in 2008 officially closed the area to OHVs for the foreseeable future while allowing 2,820 miles for motorized recreation elsewhere.
"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 a 2007 report commissioned by BLM that inventoried more than $300,000 in archaeological damage.
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.
San Juan in 2012 requested BLM to authorize a 14-mile right of way through portions of the canyon, arguing it could promote economic development in Blanding, about 3 miles west of the canyon, while reducing the threat of improvised trails (Greenwire, Feb. 4).
BLM will soon release an environmental assessment on the proposal, though it has made no decision on whether to approve it.
The issue set off a vigorous debate over how to balance the promotion and protection of American Indian sites in a county where experts estimate looters have raided most of the county's 28,000 known archaeological sites. Local conservationists and the Hopi Tribe oppose the plan, arguing it would reward the illegal trail builders and increase the risk of vandalism or looting.
But Lyman said the county is willing to reroute the trail around archaeological sites. He said BLM has been dragging its feet on the decision for far too long and that his ride hopes to show that "people do have options."
"The whole purpose was to prompt some sort of action," he said. Lyman said he also fears conservation groups, namely the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, hold an outsized influence over BLM through the threat of lawsuits. "They can basically stall this out forever," he said.
Lyman's plan also calls for improvement projects in Recapture including trail maintenance and signage.
But Liz Thomas, an attorney for SUWA in Moab, said riding the trail is going to cause the same damage that prompted BLM to close it in 2007.
"This is federal land, it's not county land," she said, noting that there are roughly 4,000 miles of other trails open to OHVs in San Juan. "I don't see a need for it. It's not a transportation issue, and it doesn't go anywhere."
The canyon is open to hikers and horseback riders.
Will this set a precedent?
Lyman said he and others are willing to be arrested or cited for the ride. But sources say there's little chance BLM will arrest violators. The agency is more likely to take names and turn them over to federal attorneys.
Such appeared to be the case in 2009, when hundreds of OHV riders illegally rode up the muddy Paria River that BLM had closed to vehicles in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
"People are the government," organizer Shawna Cox, dressed in a vest of the U.S. flag, told The Salt Lake Tribune then. "We need to go back to the Constitution. ... We're standing up for our rights to access."
Lyman said he's been told BLM will not arrest people for riding Recapture, but he's worried that the agency could take a more aggressive approach after being forced to back down in the Bundy roundup.
Robert Keiter, a professor of public lands at the University of Utah who serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, said such rides have the potential to set a troubling tone particularly when they're led by government officials, even if acting in an unofficial capacity.
"Cumulatively, this could add up to foment further actions of this type," he said. "You have a legal process pending ... which potentially offers a solution to the problem."
Moreover, such rides threaten to derail collaborative efforts in southeast Utah among members of Congress, counties, conservationists, OHV riders and energy developers to craft socially sustainable land management solutions, he said.
"This has the potential to undermine the trust that's really essential for those efforts to succeed," he said.
Others say the ride, like Bundy's illegal cattle, sets a troubling precedent for law and order. Just this month, Utah's Iron County threatened to remove wild horses from the range if BLM failed to act, though the agency is now working with the county to cull the herd.
"It doesn't matter if you're an environmentalist, industrialist, rancher or county commissioner, public lands don't belong to any single person or entity. They belong to us all," said Ross Lane, director of the government watchdog group Western Values Project. "The preamble to our Constitution specifically mentions future generations, and we owe them the same great opportunities we have, not just some free-for-all society where people decide which laws to follow and which ones to ignore."