ATVs with American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners drove down the non-motorized Recapture Trail as riders shouted “Liberty!” A half-dozen San Juan County sheriff deputies, some patrolling the trail on horseback, casually looked on.
“We’re here to keep the peace, and make sure no one gets hurt. There will be no enforcement of trail users,” said one officer, who declined to give his name.
The event was peaceful, and was an all-ages event. The lead rider in the organized act of civil disobedience was an elderly man breathing from an oxygen tank. Parents with kids on their laps slowly drove their ATVs down the seven-mile trail.
No tickets were issued, and no BLM rangers or federal officers were visible at the trailhead or anywhere else.
“We were informed the federal folks decided not to attend,” said Charlotte Black, who supports the protest. “I’m glad; no one wants to see them with all of their SWAT gear and automatic guns.”
She and her husband, Pete, have been riding ATVs on the Recapture Trail all their lives, and run cattle on property adjacent to the trail.
In 2007, the BLM closed the road to motorized traffic, saying it damaged natural resources and passes through Native American ruins.
“The pretense in which it was closed was really silly. How much damage can a little trail cause? It doesn’t,” said Pete Black. “We used to be able to take our friends down here on ATVs, and I’m too old to walk it anymore.”
There were no obvious supporters of the closure that showed up at the trail rally.
Rumors that the Montana militia might attend seemed to play out when a Jeep with Montana plates stopped at the motorized closure sign. Heavily armed men got out, and one began speaking while another filmed.
“Well, what is this here? A BLM sign saying this public trail is closed. The people should decide that, not the federal government. I feel the sign should be torn down,” he said.
“It already was,” somebody said.
“Then tear it down again,” the Montana man said.
When asked for further comment and a name, he refused, later exclaiming: “I don’t speak to the liberal media.”
The mood was jovial but bittersweet, as locals expressed frustration, saying the BLM has stalled on a right-of-way application for ATV use on the popular trail.
“I don’t think it will change until we get new people into the federal land agencies,” says Clark Russell, of Blanding. “Recapture Canyon is a refuge from the summer heat. This road has been here for ages. Everyone stays on the trail, there is not one piece of garbage back here.”
Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who recently triggered an armed standoff with federal agents for refusing to pay BLM grazing fees, attended the rally.
But after a couple of hours, the dust settled, everyone left, and the scenic canyon with its Anasazi ruins, steep cliffs and meandering creek regained a natural calm.
The controversy over public access to federal lands remains.
“We came to show support,” said Kathy Roatcap, of Cortez. “This is the land of the people, not the federal government.”