On May 10, Recapture Canyon north of Blanding, Utah, saw something it hadn’t seen in a long time— a crowd.
For seven years a portion of the canyon has been closed to motorized travel under a Bureau of Land Management order designed to protect the canyon’s cultural resources, which include Ancestral Puebloan artifacts. It remains open to hikers, bikers and other non-motorized uses.
But on that Saturday, nearly 100 people defied the law and took to the quiet trail driving ATVs and jeeps. Some carried protest signs or flags, while others toted guns – all in an effort to get the BLM to end the temporary road closure, which has stretched on for more than six years.
Dozens of San Juan County sheriff ’s deputies, many of them on horseback, silently watched.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who organized the protest, spoke to a crowd of about 300 gathered at Centennial Park in Blanding before the ride. He said the Sept. 13, 2007, closure of the trail – popular with local motorized users because it is just a couple of miles outside of Blanding – and the BLM’s refusal to issue a final decision led to the protest, he said.
“We have talked and talked and talked,” he said. “It’s frustrating to a community.”
Lyman said he has repeatedly asked the BLM to show him where to redirect the trail.
“I could get 300 volunteers down there to redirect that trail in a weekend,” he said.
The rally and protest ride drew a large contingent of media, a handful of people from a militia group and numerous local residents concerned about what they see as the overreaching arms of the federal government.
“Proud to be an American,” “God Bless America” and “We Are Not Going to Take it,” blared in the background.
If the federal government had ears, they would have been burning this early spring morning as speakers stood up in front of the crowd and cited several reasons it had gone too far.
“The American people have rights and we need to get out and exercise those rights,” said James Pribble of Dove Creek, Colo. “They are trying to restrict us.”
Pribble said the BLM has been sticking road-closure signs all over Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah.
“It causes anger. Those lands belong to the people,” Pribble said.
Pribble was gearing up his ATV to ride the closed portion of the trail. “There needs to be balance and protection, but at the same time, they can’t deny the people,” he said.
Lyman was surprised by the size of the response.
“This is not much of a local issue anymore, it’s a bigger issue,” Lyman said.
Lyman did, however, tell the crowd that he did not have the backing of the other San Juan County commissioners and that he was acting alone in organizing the event. He also suggested that the crowd stay on roads that are open to motorized use.
“It takes a lot of courage to go on that trail,” he said.
That comment was met with jeers.
“No, go down that trail,” people yelled.
“We came down here to ride down the canyon with you,” said Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who made headlines recently for refusing to pay grazing fees to the BLM. When the agency started rounding up his cattle, a horde of angry protesters and militia members flocked to the area to confront BLM agents, who ultimately backed off and let the cattle go.
“This isn’t just about recapturing Recapture, it’s about recapturing our America,” said Stefnee Turk, executive director of San Juan Alliance, a citizens group supporting multiple use.
Jay Redd, son of Dr. James Redd – who was arrested in a BLM raid of his Blanding home on June 10, 2009, and charged, along with two dozen others, with possessing illegally obtained artifacts – also spoke out against the BLM. The doctor committed suicide the next day.
Redd held up a picture of a small bead that was seized from his father’s home.
“My dad is dead because of this,” he said. “Dr. Redd was not an evil criminal. My dad is here today in spirit.”
He told the crowd he is suing the BLM for the wrongful death of his father.
Curtis Ynaito spoke of the land surrounding Blanding as sacred to the Navajo people. He joined the protest ride down Recapture Canyon.
“This country right here is very sacred. Me, I’m part of this earth and you guys always say ‘mine’. We are forbidden to say that word in Navajo. We are Mother Earth,” he said.
Ynaito spoke of the beautiful words used to describe the earth in Navajo and said he is going to use his pen as an arrow and fight with that.
“I need help,” he said. “In Navajo, we have beautiful words to describe our earth. Maybe we should write the constitution in Navajo.”
Finally those who had decided to go ahead and ride the closed part of the trail took off in a slow procession that raised a cloud of dust as they trundled along.
At one point during the ride, an armed militia man spotted a closure sign and asked the San Juan County citizens if they wanted it taken down.
“This sign is telling you where you can and can’t go,” he said. “Do the people of San Juan County want it here?”
For a bit, it looked as if the sign would be torn down, but nobody from San Juan County would agree with the militia man and the sign was still standing as participants made their way back to the trailhead.
Down inside the canyon, 75-year-old Gary Guymon watched as ATVs sped past him. He slowly walked the trail while others rode past.
His family homesteaded in the area and he grew up playing in the canyon and taking his family’s cattle there to graze and drink. To him, the canyon is home. He said the Recapture Canyon protest was important to be a part of.
“Any way I can help make America free,” he said.
But environmentalists and historic-preservation groups had a far different reaction to the ride.
Josh Ewing, director of the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa, walked the trail May 10 as an observer and took photographs and video. “I felt somebody needed to be there to see what happened,” Ewing said.
The area is rich in archaeological sites, including a burial site, he said. Other canyons in the area are too.
“From what I saw, I don’t know if there was any damage that wasn’t already caused by the road previously,” he said. However, he did not approve of the protest.
“I was disappointed that the riders decided to ride the trail,” he said.
While Ewing said he understands the frustration of those that participated, he believes there were other ways to show displeasure.
“Trails have to be done the proper way, which involves consulting with native tribes and archaeologists,” he said. “I can understand the frustration…but part of the process is following the law.”
Ewing said that ironically, the ride may have delayed the BLM’s final decision about the trail. “Instead of working on rerouting the trail, they (BLM) are now looking at evidence regarding who broke the law,” he said.
Ewing was asked to turn over his video of the event, but said he has refused unless he is subpoenaed.
Ewing stopped short of condemning the participants, however, saying the majority were local, good people.
“The demonization of these people is not deserved. They are good people. I don’t condone the ride, but these are good people. They are family people. Fellow firefighters and business people. They are local people, just frustrated with the process.”
Rose Chilcoat, associate director of the nonprofit Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said she hopes everyone who participated in the event is prosecuted.
“The BLM and rangers were intimidated and unable to do their job,” she said. “I want to see people held accountable. You don’t show up with guns to enforce your position.”
Chilcoat said the closure is needed to help protect the archaeological sites and prevent looting. She was critical of local officials who were involved with it.
“I’m really disappointed that Phil Lyman, a government representative, thought that this was a way to find a solution,” she said.
“And when the sheriff stands by, it’s anarchy, it’s domestic terrorism.”
Representatives of Great Old Broads had hoped to be present at the protest, but ultimately decided it would not be wise.
“Originally we had planned on being there to witness the ride, but when the militia types showed up, we chose not to go,” she said.
San Juan County passes resolution asserting jurisdiction over trail
The San Juan County commissioners passed a resolution June 2 claiming a valid rightof- way on the Recapture Trail and saying it will voluntarily close the trail to off-highwayvehicle use for 60 days beginning June 10 in order to determine what management course to pursue.
The vote was 2-1, with Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy dissenting. He said, speaking as a Native American, he found the issue of motorized use in Recapture Canyon, which contains ancient archaeological sites including burials, “very sensitive.” He likened the area to a cemetery and said those buried there should not be disturbed by noise. Without further input and discussion from Native Americans, he said, he could not support the resolution.
Commissioner Phil Lyman said the resolution was not so much about ATVs on the Recapture Trail specifically, but about protecting the county’s rights against the federal government. The resolution says the county wants to protect the archaeological sites.
But Maryboy said, as a medicine man, he knew there were prayer sites in the canyon and he could not vote for the resolution.