A protest ride by all-terrain vehicle users set for Saturday in Recapture Canyon east of Blanding, Utah, is capturing national attention. Federal officials have warned that participants may be prosecuted.
The canyon, about three miles east of Blanding’s main drag, has been off-limits to motorized use since a Bureau of Land Management decree in September 2007. The BLM is in the process of considering San Juan County’s application for a right of way for an ATV trail in the canyon.
Phil Lyman, the San Juan County, Utah, county commissioner who is organizing the ride, said Thursday that earlier this week, he went into the canyon with federal archaeologists to scout areas where there are ancient Native American sites that should be avoided during the protest ride.
He said he has “huge respect” for local BLM employees.
“The frustration is Washington-style politics and policies that come down and affect us here in the West,” Lyman said in a phone interview.
The issue has ballooned on the heels of the recent incident involving Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the BLM rounding up his cattle. In fact, Bundy’s ranch is urging its Facebook followers to go to Blanding and protest the BLM’s actions.
The BLM’s canyon country district manager, Lance Porter, cautioned Lyman in an April 28 letter about possible violations.
“I strongly urge you to cancel the proposed ride in the closed portion of the canyon,” Porter wrote. “To the extent that you or anyone else uses a motorized vehicle within the closed area, BLM will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties.”
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge told the San Juan Record, based in Monticello, that his department will merely provide crowd control for the event.
“We have no idea on the number (of protestors),” Eldredge told the Record for a Wednesday story. “My job is to keep the peace.”
Several national media members as well as regional TV and newspapers have said they plan to cover the event, Megan Crandall, BLM Utah spokeswoman, said Thursday.
Crandall said the BLM has a couple of law-enforcement rangers in southeastern Utah, but wasn’t certain if they will be at Saturday’s gathering. She said the BLM will not be sending in “re-enforcements.”
The issue came to a head in 2006 after an ATV trail – new or existing, depending on who’s talking – was constructed or improved by a group of locals. Two Blanding men later were fined $35,000 for what the BLM considered damage to the area and to archaeological sites.
Also in 2006, San Juan County applied to the BLM for a right of way for the ATV trail through Recapture Canyon.
In 2007, Recapture Canyon was closed to motorized use. Then in 2008, the BLM instituted a major change that closed its lands to motorized use unless they were designated open. Before that, BLM lands were open unless designated closed.
In December 2013, the BLM asked for public input on the county’s right-of-way application. The comment deadline was Jan. 26. An environmental assessment is still being completed, BLM spokeswoman Crandall said.
“The protest is not about how long it’s taking; it’s about that the BLM is acting unilaterally without any involvement from the county,” Lyman said. “Whether or not there should be motorized traffic in Recapture Canyon, that’s a good debate to have. That debate was never held.”
The Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which has been vilified by some Blanding-area residents, supports the BLM closure.
“There are thousands of miles of motorized routes around Blanding,” Great Old Broads Director Rose Chilcoat said Thursday.
She said the canyon is “incredibly rich archaeologically” with “literally hundreds of sites in the canyon.” She referred to it as a mini-Mesa Verde.
She said the ATV route apparently built in 2005 was fresh and illegally constructed and went across archaeological sites. The BLM damage assessment from the ATV trail was estimated at $300,000.
Lyman said the Recapture Canyon protest ride was planned well ahead of the Bundy incident. It’s scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in Blanding.
“It’s not on the level of a Bundy event,” Lyman said. “If we have more than 1,000 (riders), I’ll be surprised. If we have less than 100, I’ll be surprised. Who knows?”
The Bundy Ranch Facebook site urged its followers to act: “The BLM are trying to stop this. All who can go out and support this please do!! We need to stick together and continue to make a stand!”