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SAN JUAN COUNTY — The San Juan County commissioner has planned to lead a group of residents during an ATV ride to protest the Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction within the canyon.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman planned the protest for Saturday at 9 a.m. The group of San Juan County residents plan to ride through Recapture Canyon to protest against what they call "improper jurisdiction by the Bureau of Land Management" and to force the BLM to decide who has jurisdiction within the canyon.
There are concerns that the protest could escalate into a showdown between the protestors and the Bureau of Land Management.
According to BLM-Utah spokesperson, Megan Crandall, the BLM closed Recapture Canyon — located a few miles southeast of Blanding — to all motorized traffic in 2007 after ATV riders caused significant resource damage inside the canyon in 2005 and 2006 when they widened parts of the trail and added switchbacks to make the canyon accessible to ATV passage.
“The decision was reached (to close the road) to protect the archaeological sites in the area from further damage,” Crandall said.
Recapture Canyon is home to hundreds of well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins and numerous other artifacts, that are at least 1,000 years old.
“The Recapture Canyon area contains a rich archaeological record of the Ancestral Puebloans who once called it home,” said Juan Palma, BLM-Utah State Director. “To protect the cultural resources left by these prehistoric peoples, the BLM-Utah closed the Recapture Canyon trail to motorized access in 2007.”
Recapture Canyon is still open to visitors who want to hike or go through on horseback.
The illegally constructed road that ATVers constructed in 2005 and 2006 directly impacted 31 archaeological sites, according to Rose Chilcoat, Associate Director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Great Old Broads for Wilderness was established in Durango, Colorado and has been involved in protecting and preserving Recapture Canyon since 2005.
This protest is symbolic. This isn't about whether motorized vehicles are allowed in Recapture [Canyon]. It's about the process of determining what is and isn't allowed by the federal government.
–Phil Lyman, San Juan County Commissioner
The proposed ATV road through Recapture Canyon would be just over 14 miles long and have four access points. The BLM Monticello Field Office already has more than 2,800 miles – an equivalent distance between New York and Los Angeles – that are open to ATVS and OHVs.
Lyman says he will be at the front of the protestors when they cross into Recapture Canyon on their ATVs Saturday morning, but he said taking ATVs into Recapture Canyon is less about the canyon and more about the locals standing up to Big Brother.
"This protest is symbolic,” Lyman said. “This isn’t about whether motorized vehicles are allowed in Recapture [Canyon]. It’s about the process of determining what is and isn’t allowed by the federal government.”
“People from Blanding are respectful,” Lyman said. “We care about the land, including Recapture Canyon, more than anybody else. It’s part of our heritage and culture. It’s what we see when we look out our kitchen windows.”
However, Chilcoat said that putting a road, or even an ATV trail, through Recapture Canyon will spoil what makes the place special.
“It’s so close to a community and yet so relatively unspoiled,” Chilcoat said. “Once you drop below the rim you drop back in time, to another place. It’s peaceful and quiet. The only sounds are the steam and the wind in the trees. And there’s the adventure of seeing the ruins. As soon as you put wheels and motors and traffic in there you change it forever, and not for the better.”
BLM officials said they have no problem with Lyman and his group of protestors having their protest, but that they don’t want them to use a motorized vehicle inside Recapture Canyon.
“They can still do their protest, they can still make their point, but they need to use one of the trails where ATVs are legal,” Crandall said.
The BLM has said they will pursue appropriate penalties against anyone who uses a motorized vehicle inside Recapture Canyon.
Lyman said the idea of driving ATVs through Recapture Canyon as a form of protest came about in a town hall meeting in which residents complained heavily about what they perceived as the federal government over-reaching their authority.
“A lot of people had frustrations with the BLM, particularly the way they had changed their posture in accordance to small rural communities," Lyman said. “So I expect that we’ll drive across that line Saturday simply because the BLM has said ‘Thou shalt not cross.’ ”
There are concerns that if the ATV protest riders do cross into the Recapture Canyon on their ATVs that such open disregard for the BLM’s ATV ban — with the BLM watching and promising to enforce the restrictions – could escalate into a standoff between the ATV protestors and the BLM similar to the stand-off between the BLM and Cliven Bundy in Nevada regarding grazing rights on BLM land.
Lyman planned the ATM protest ride locally, prior to the Bundy Ranch conflict, but has since invited participation from supporters across the U.S.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said he and his department plan to attend the event to provide crowd control, if needed.
Contributing: Rich Piatt and Alex Cabrero
Steven Law has been writing for KSL.com since 2011. He writes about exploration, outdoor travel, and science.