In defiance of a Bureau of Land Management road closure, San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman, led a group of about 30 ATV riders into Recapture Canyon near Blanding on Saturday, May 10.
“This is not just about a road in Recapture Canyon,” Lyman said. “It is about an overreaching federal government.”
The area has been closed to motorized-vehicle traffic since 2007, when the BLM determined that the canyon’s archaeological resources, including ancient burial grounds, and Puebloan ruins dating back as far as 2,000 years, were being damaged by off-road-vehicle use.
“Limited closures help protect these sensitive resources from further damage, and show respect to those whose final resting place is in the canyon,” Utah BLM director Juan Palma said in a statement Friday, May 9. “We regret that the planned illegal ATV ride appears to be going forward. The BLM-Utah will seek appropriate penalties against anyone who willfully violates the law.”
But what started as a local protest, grew to attract a number of outside supporters, and conservative militant groups, including armed members of the Montana Militia, the Citizens Action Network, and the Save America Foundation.
The Save America Foundation posted an “urgent call to all patriots” on its website. It also posted a message from Carol Bundy, wife of embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who staged a recent armed standoff with the BLM, over his refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land.
“Please make the trip to Blanding,” Carol Bundy urged, “We need to keep sending the message loud and clear wherever the BLM is illegally asserting its power.”
Approximately 300 people attended a morning rally at Centennial Park in Blanding prior to the ride, including Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy. He addressed the crowd and cited the U.S. Constitution as proof that states should be granted more rights.
Country music played, and American flags, protest signs, and flags emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t tread on me” were seen in abundance. One sign, held by Provo resident Dylan Anderson, proclaimed that federal lands should be transferred to the western states.
“I was in Bunkerville with Ryan (Bundy) under the freeway,” Anderson said. “I’m in it with him, this is my fight, too.”
Stefnee Turk, of the San Juan Alliance, said she was tired of the government telling her how to live, where she could live, and what she could do for work.
“Everywhere I go, I see a sign telling me where I can walk,” she said.
Another speaker said that it was a new religion, “the worship of the Goddess Gaia” that has taken over the federal government.
Steve Curry, a Vietnam veteran from Montrose, Colo. spoke on behalf of the Citizens Action Network. He encouraged community members to establish a common law outside of our current judiciary which he said was a foreign power. He also encouraged everyone to establish a militia.
“We took Nevada back, and now we are here to take back Utah,” Curry said. “We need to make this an offensive goal. And if the BLM draws guns on you, you draw guns on them.”
It was fear of that kind of talk that discouraged counter-protesters like Rose Chilcoat, associate director for Great Old Broads for Wilderness, from having a presence at the event. They had planned to have a small group in attendance simply to observe, but when news emerged about the armed militia members, they decided it wasn’t worth it.
“In my mind, threatening law enforcement officers isn’t civil disobedience, it’s anarchy, and these guys are domestic terrorists,” Chilcoat said.
The Broads, as they call themselves, have been targeted before for their work to protect Recapture Canyon. In 2010, signs appeared around San Juan County, and on trees in the canyon, that said: “wanted, dead or alive, Great Old Broads for Wilderness,” alongside an image of a skull and cross bones.
Prior to the ride, Lyman addressed the crowd several times. He spoke about being a fourth-generation resident who had great respect for the land, but also said that he had no moral issue with riding an ATV into the canyon.
“Blanding is ATV-friendly,” he said. “The Utah Highway Patrol is allowing ATV’s on the highway today, so you can just ride right from here. The sheriff’s office has also been very helpful. They are our friends, and they support us.”
Sergeant Richard Haycock, from the Moab office of the Utah Highway Patrol, said that they (UHP) didn’t have the authority to allow people to break the law. The Monticello office of the UHP did not respond to requests for a comment. At least a dozen ATVs traveled on U.S. Hwy 191 from Blanding to the road into Recapture Canyon.
At one point, in response to increasing calls from some in the crowd for violent confrontation with the BLM and environmentalists, Lyman proposed not riding the illegal route. He suggested making a presence, but advocated staying on a legal trail along the rim of the canyon.
“I fear this is looking like conflict for the sake of conflict,” he said.
“We’ve got to stop this weak talk,” said Ryan Payne of the Montana Militia. “Let’s go in there and take what’s yours. It’s your God-given right.”
“I came here to open a road,” Ryan Bundy said. “And if we aren’t going to do that, I’m going to get in my truck and go home.”
Lyman urged everyone to act responsibly.
“For those of you who aren’t from our community, when you leave, the consequences of your actions will stay with us,” he said. “When we ride today, this is not the time for violence and bullying.”
The group of riders entered the canyon unopposed either by environmental activists, or county law enforcement officers who stood by on horse back. Many of the riders greeted San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge as they rode past.
“We are here to keep the peace and to protect people’s constitutional rights,” Eldredge said. “Any citations issued will be by the BLM. They are the ones who closed the road.”
Lyman turned his group around at the end of the maintained county road just before the willows got thick. Several ATVs continued further. In retrospect, Lyman said he wasn’t pleased with the event being co-opted by other groups.
“I respect what others stand for, but this was a local issue,” he said.
Trammeled vegetation, disturbed soil, and muddied riparian zones were clearly visible where vehicles crossed through Recapture Creek. The BLM said it will determine whether archaeological sites were damaged.
BLM staff were not clearly identifiable during the event. In a statement released immediately after the event, the BLM said they were present in Recapture Canyon that day collecting evidence, and that they would pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the law breakers accountable.
“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 ATV’s,” Palma said in the statement.
Chilcoat said she wants to know what the BLM is going to do to insure that the violators are held up to the law. She said that environmental activists are often made examples of for their acts of civil disobedience, and she cited Tim DeChristopher, who spent two years in prison for bidding on oil leases with no intention of paying them.
“Commissioner Lyman should be held accountable for inciting this,” she said.
In Grand County, council chairman Lynn Jackson wouldn’t comment on whether he felt that Lyman should be prosecuted for violating federal law. But he did say that county governments and residents need to deal with issues as they see fit.
“I believe this points to the frustration all of us have in dealing with the federal government,” Jackson said. “And I’m definitely of the opinion that states, and the local people, are better equipped to manage their lands.”
Liz Thomas, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said that they supported the BLM’s enforcement of the closure. Now that it has been broken, SUWA expects BLM and the U.S. Attorney’s office to fully prosecute the illegal actions taken by commissioner Lyman and others in Recapture Canyon.
“The blatant disregard for federal laws and land-management decisions designed to protect our cultural heritage must not go unpunished,” Thomas said. “This event has been a good example of why state and local governments can’t be entrusted to manage public lands.”
“Limited closures help protect these sensitive resources from further damage and show respect to those whose final resting place is in the canyon.”
San Juan commissioner joined by Bundy family members; Counter-protestors are a no-show