Utahns are a law-abiding people. We have great respect for government and those who govern us. Many of us hold this as an article of faith. But there are a growing number of so-called patriots who have instead turned criticism of the law into outright rebellion. It doesn’t appear likely they will be held accountable for their actions, either.
I’m referring, of course, to San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and his band of neo-Sagebrush Rebels who last month vandalized land in Recapture Canyon by riding their ATVs through the pristine canyon the BLM had closed to motorized use for important ecological and archaeological reasons.
I can sympathize with the frustration experienced by Lyman and many of the residents of the Four Corners region of Utah. Like Lyman’s forebearers, my ancestors also traveled through the Hole in the Rock to reach Bluff and the surrounding areas of Southeastern Utah. They were part of the only eastward emigrant train in the history of the United States. Both Lyman and I are rightly proud of this heritage. But the relationship between the land of southeastern Utah and those who live there is a complicated one. Lyman’s claims to a unique understanding of the land based on genealogical data should be vigorously questioned.
It isn’t clear why his genealogy should de facto give him a claim to the public land in the area. I was born in Monticello, but I grew up in Murray. To what extent do I or my immediate family still have a claim on motorized access to those lands? And for that matter, why should the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition be ground zero for determining who gets to ride ATVs there?
Recapture Canyon was named several years before Holyoaks or Lymans arrived. Indeed, the canyon was named by a hermit who had been living in the area (and who incorrectly believed the canyon was the place of Montezuma’s capture), several years before Mormons arrived. But even before Europeans arrived, Mormon or otherwise, the land was home to centuries of American Indians. Their lives and stories remain inscribed on the walls of the canyon.
Many of those inscriptions and dwellings are sacred to tribes in Utah’s southeastern corner. It is holy land, and Phil Lyman trampled on it. A tactic he would presumably not approve of at the nearby Mormon Temple in Monticello. Lyman and his gang are yet to be held accountable for their actions.
We’re in the process of arranging a meeting with Juan Palma, the director of the BLM here in Utah. The BLM has expressly stated that they would hold Lyman and the protesters accountable, but there is yet to be any movement on the issue. There are thousands of Utahns who have since called on the BLM to act. As of the writing of this op-ed, nearly 2,000 of us have signed our names to a petition calling for the fair application of the law in the matter of Lyman and his protesters.
It is possible to be critical of the law while still obeying, honoring and sustaining it. Indeed, I would place myself in a school of thought that holds dissent as an expression of love and loyalty. But Lyman and his group went too far when criticism turned to vandalism. They should be held accountable.
Isaac Holyoak is communications director for Alliance for a Better UTAH.
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