The Bureau of Land Management is being taken to task again by Cliven Bundy supporters, this time by dozens of people on all-terrain vehicles in Utah. But on Saturday, the BLM stood down as the ATVs rode on land closed to motorized vehicles since 2007.
The ATV ride was organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who said he was acting as a private citizen. He contends that Blanding, a town of 3,500 residents, have been trying to compromise with the BLM since the closure of Utah’s Recapture Canyon to motorized vehicles after two men illegally constructed a 7-mile-long, 4-foot-wide trail through the canyon. The trail — complete with bridges, berms and stiles — cut through Native American archaeological sites. The Pueblo tribe lived in the canyon until 800 years ago.
Critics of the move say the BLM thwarted the review process laid out in the National Environmental Policy Act, while supporters content the agency had to act quickly to protect the canyon and prevent irreparable damage to archaeological sites there, according to the Deseret News.
"For 130 years people have been using that canyon as a highway," Lyman said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. "To see it become a focal point of conflict is very painful for me."
The event began with a rally in Blanding’s Centennial Park, protesting what Lyman and more than 200 supporters called federal “overreach” into local jurisdiction. The catalyst for the rally and subsequent protest ride was the BLM’s failure to process San Juan County’s applications for rights-of-way in the canyon.
"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."
Lyman proposed riding the canyon rim after the rally instead of illegally entering Recapture, but rally-goers shouted that idea down, the Tribune reports. "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.
Ryan Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy (known as the “last rancher in Clark County, Nevada” famous for his recent showdown against the BLM for his refusal since 1993 to pay fees to the federal government for the right to raise cattle on land his family has ranched since the 1870s), drove from his family’s ranch to the rally, where he revved up the crowd, the Deseret News reports. Bundy was one of the ATVers who chose to ride in the prohibited portions, rather than staying along the canyon rim.
"Doing that accomplishes nothing," he said. "It basically shows cowardice to the federal government, toward the Bureau of Land Management. If we're here to make a stand, then for heaven's sake, let's make a stand."
Participant Cade Lewis agreed. "That's what we're here for, is to do the hard things and stand up and do what's right — and tell the federal government we've had enough," Lewis told the Deseret News.
"It is fair to say that the vast majority of people here are frustrated with the federal presence here," Bill Boyle, a lifelong resident and publisher of the San Juan Record newspaper told the Post in 2011.
The BLM, in conjunction with the FBI, the Utah attorney general’s office, the Utah Department of Public Safety and San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge, decided to “stand back” to avoid a similar confrontation as the BLM did at the Bundy ranch, the Post reports. "It was decided that, at the end of the day, it is not worth it to spill any blood," Eldredge told the Post regarding the group’s decision.
"As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that," BLM Utah director Juan Palma said in a statement. "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."
He said he was concerned the riders may have damaged artifacts and dwellings that "tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region" of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
"Damage to archaeological sites is permanent and the information about our collective past is then lost forever," Jerry Spangler, of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, said to the Salt Lake Tribune. "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."
Palma also pointed out in his statement that there are more than 2,800 miles of trails on public lands that are open to ATV use within a short drive of Blanding. He also noted that BLM-managed public lands in Utah provide $490 million in local and national economic benefits in 2012.
Saturday’s non-confrontation between residents of San Juan County - and Blanding especially - have faced off against the federal government. In 2011, a federal raid by 150 armed agents took place against 16 residents, the Denver Post reports. The raid focused on violations of the 1906 Antiquities Law and the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act for looting Ancestral Puebloan artifacts, the Department of Justice said at the time. Along with felony charges regarding the artifacts, the DOJ also charged people with up to four other felonies.
But Blanding’s citizens contended that the BLM was being hypocritical.. According to the Post at the time, the BLM “has been known to smash pots and rock objects when there was no place to store them. And BLM and US Forest Service agents were implicated in one of the recent search-warrant affidavits for taking and selling items themselves,” which the US attorney’s office would not comment on.
Federal raids also occurred in the area in the 1980s.