SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – An idyllic Utah canyon home to ancient cliff dwellings and native burials will be the site of a protest Saturday by a group of people who plan to mount their ATVs and ride a trail that has been off limits to motorized vehicles since 2007.
The Bureau of Land Management is warning the riders to stay out and vowing prosecution against those who ignore a law put in place after an illegal trail was found through ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old and include ancient burials. The canyon is open to hikers and horseback riders.
The act of defiance by the group is the latest illustration of the growing tension between angry Western residents and the federal government over management of public lands. But the off-road protest isn’t expected to lead to a clash or violent confrontation like other recent ones.
The BLM doesn’t plan to block access to the trail or confront the riders, said San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge, who has been briefed on the agency’s plans. The agency will, however, send employees to document people who ride ATVs on the prohibited trail, he said.
The protest’s organizer, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, said he expects only a handful of people to ride on the restricted areas after a rally of hundreds at a nearby city park. He has drummed up interest on social media but isn’t recruiting militant types.
Lyman, an accountant whose family has been in the region for four generations, said the ride isn’t just about ATV access to Recapture Canyon. It’s a demonstration of his disgust with what he calls the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands and disregard for local public opinion.
“We are frustrated and tired with the BLM consistently encroaching and reaching and taking things away that are part of our history and culture,” Lyman said. “They are not the supreme authority. The people have a right to stand up and do something.”
Recapture Canyon is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago before they mysteriously disappeared. A gurgling stream in the canyon likely drew them as it does outdoor enthusiasts today.
Environmentalists and Native Americans say the ban is needed to preserve the fragile artifacts in a canyon. Navajos claim the people who lived, farmed, worshiped and are buried there are ancestors.
“Those ancient sites are the equivalent to churches,” said Mark Maryboy, a longtime former member of the Navajo Reservation council. “It’s very disappointing that they have no respect for Native American culture and religion.”
The canyon is a few miles outside the small city of Blanding and about 40 miles northwest of the junction of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, known as the Four Corners.
The protest comes amid a period of high tension over BLM practices.
Last month, the BLM engaged in a standoff with gun-wielding militants in Nevada over a dispute about cattle grazing on Cliven Bundy’s ranch before ultimately stepping down. Rural Utah ranchers and county leaders recently threatened to break federal law and round up wild horses this summer if the BLM doesn’t do it first. State wildlife officials voted to back the ranchers. Earlier this week, a BLM employee in Utah was threatened while driving on the highway by two men who pulled out a weapon and held up a sign that read, “You need to die.”
The federal government owns two-thirds of Utah’s land, and Lyman is not the first to complain about the way that land is operated. The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature passed a law in 2012 that calls on the federal government to hand over control of all public lands before 2015, excluding national parks.
A Kane County commissioner led ATV riders on another BLM trail that bans motorized vehicles in 2009 in protest of the closure. The BLM passed on information about the riders to federal prosecutors, but no charges were filed.
Motorized access has been a source of tension dating back decades in Recapture Canyon. Lyman and others who live in Blanding, population 3,500, say the trails in the canyons have been used for more than 100 years by settlers to make their way from one town to the next and shouldn’t be restricted.
The BLM ban came after two men pleaded guilty in federal court to damaging sensitive archaeological sites by using picks and shovels to create an off-road recreational vehicle trail.
Lyman believes it’s possible to reopen the canyon to ATVs while preserving those artifacts, contending that ATV riders are responsible and not interested in ripping anything up.
But Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities disagrees, saying that ATV riders already blew their chance to prove they could use the trail without damaging artifacts.
Pat Shea, a former national BLM director who is now an attorney in Salt Lake City, said he views Lyman’s protest as another example of an attention-hungry person who selectively chooses parts of American history to justify breaking the law and then tries to avoid facing the consequence.
“People seem to forget that we are a nation of laws and to disobey them is illegal,” Shea said.
These acts of civil disobedience put federal agencies in a difficult position, said Shea. To prevent injuries and bloodshed, they must avoid clashes and work to de-escalate situations, but coming off weak brings its own consequence.
“It’s a real policy dilemma because people begin to believe they can be the law into themselves,” Shea said. “Then why should people stop at red lights?”