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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) ATVs make their way through Recapture Canyon, which has been closed to motorized use since 2007, after a call-to-action by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on Saturday, May 10, 2014, north of Blanding.
Dozens illegally ride ATVs into Utah canyon in lands fight rally
Protest » Scores of ATV riders enter off-limits trail to claim temporary victory in jurisdictional dispute with the BLM over canyon access.
First Published May 10 2014 11:09 am • Last Updated May 11 2014 12:12 pm

Blanding • Fed up with federal control over lands their families have used for generations, Blanding residents along with out-of-town supporters on Saturday drove all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Canyon, an area rich in prehistoric sites the Bureau of Land Management closed to motorized use seven years ago.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, acting, he said, as a private citizen, organized the ride. It commenced with a rally in Blanding’s Centennial Park protesting what he and more than 200 supporters call federal "overreach" into local jurisdiction. Prompting the protest was BLM’s failure to process San Juan County’s applications for ATV rights-of-way in Recapture, although resentment toward the federal agency here runs much deeper and wider than the canyon that parallels Blanding a few miles to the east.

At a glance

Public lands debate

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate an Oxford-style debate on the resolution: “The state of Utah is best suited to manage public lands within its borders.”

Who » House Speaker Becky Lockhart and Republican Rep. Ken Ivory will argue one side; former BLM director Pat Shea and University of Utah political science professor Dan McCool will argue the other.

When » Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Where » Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The debate also will be broadcast live at KCPW 88.3/105.3 FM and will be live streamed at sltrib.com.

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BLM officials said they were disappointed protestors broke the law Saturday, adding that federal officers recorded riders whom they intend to prosecute.

"We’re not proponents of breaking the law," Lyman told reporters at the park, an hour before joining dozens of riders on the closed route. "This was a supervisor’s discretionary closure. It’s a county road. We claim it. Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn’t mean they own the right-of-way that exists."

Part of a broad backlash against federal land management across the West, the ATV protest has attracted out-of-state activists eager to denounce federal authority over public lands. Some came decked in military camouflage and sidearms slung on their thighs. Militiamen approached by The Tribune declined to be interviewed.

Others protesters argued that BLM caved to special interests, like wilderness proponents and preservationists, in closing the canyon at the expense of the public, especially those who have trouble walking.

But the canyon offers a window into how ancient Native Americans thrived for centuries in an arid, rugged land, according to Jerry Spangler, of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.

"Damage to archaeological sites is permanent and the information about our collective past is then lost forever," Spangler said. "It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor. It is worse that protesters would be so blinded to their own insensitivity as to what others consider to be sacred treasures of their past."

While addressing the rally, Lyman voiced second thoughts about riding the closed trail, fearing illegal action would promote conflict and undermine his cause, which "is being tried in the court of public opinion."

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"For 130 years people have been using that canyon as a highway," Lyman said. "To see it become a focal point of conflict is very painful for me."

He proposed riding the canyon rim instead, but rally goers shouted that idea down.

"It’s not illegal. It’s the people of San Juan County’s land. It’s your god-given right to go down and ride through that canyon and to hell with the media," shouted an armed militia member.

Soon at least 50 ATVs carrying multiple riders, including children and and one man with an assault rifle at the ready, motored across an invisible line in the dust — beyond which the canyon is off limits — as sheriff’s deputies kept watch from the backs of horses.

"We are here to keep the peace and safeguard the constitutional rights of everybody," said San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge. "We don’t want to see clashes between citizens, and clashes between BLM and militia. This is not going to be Bunkerville."

The sheriff was referring to BLM’s recent stand-off with armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who has long refused to pay grazing fees. Also addressing the rally was Bundy’s son Ryan, who counseled there is no such thing as federal land.

"I came here to re-open a road," he said to resounding applause.

BLM had no visible presence at the north end of the canyon where riders entered on an established road below Recapture Reservoir, but federal officers were there, according to BLM Utah director Juan Palma. He was concerned riders may have damaged artifacts and dwellings left by Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the canyon until 800 years ago.

"As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that," Palma said. "The BLM was in Recapture Canyon today collecting evidence and will continue to investigate. The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."

Fearing for their safety, many environmentalists stayed away from Blanding Saturday and there was no counter protest during the ride.

Josh Ewing, executive director of the non-profit Friends of Cedar Mesa, was in the canyon photographing riders as they passed below a cliff dwelling a mile into the closed part of the canyon. Most of the riders, including Lyman, turned around here, while a few continued south. From here the route was less a road than a meandering trail overgrown with sage and willow.

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