On May 10, Lyman joined about 60 other people on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) ride into a Blanding-area canyon that federal land managers closed to motorized traffic in 2007.
While some ATV riders followed the previously announced route through Recapture Canyon, Lyman said he and others stopped short at the end of a county-maintained road.
Lyman was the unofficial figurehead of the event, which drew an estimated 300 people to an earlier rally in Blanding. But he said he scaled back his original plans in light of media coverage that, from his perspective, portrayed Blanding-area residents as gun-toting lawbreakers.
“We really wanted to avoid the media ambush altogether,” he said May 14.
In the wake of intense media coverage, Lyman said he has heard from people who are quick to condemn the ATV riders’ actions. However, he bristles at the suggestion that they were simply out there to break the law.
“This wasn’t a joy ride. This was a protest,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) first closed portions of Recapture Canyon to vehicles after two men built a 7-mile-long ATV trail through the area. The agency maintains that the men damaged Ancestral Puebloan artifacts and ruins, and it fears that the recent ATV traffic through the canyon may have further harmed relics in the area.
“Illegal ATV use may have damaged many of these archaeological resources – all of which hold the history and tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region,” BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma said May 10.
BLM employees were on the scene to document and record ATV riders who drove into the closure area, and they will continue to investigate the incident, Palma said.
“The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable,” he said.
But agency officials did not make a show of their presence, due in no small part to lingering tensions after a recent grazing dispute with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters.
“As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that,” Palma said.
Lyman said he has not been charged to date, and as of press time this week, he had not heard from anyone who has. However, in the event that the BLM moves to prosecute ATV riders, Lyman urges them to contact him, or an attorney.
“I won’t stand by and watch my neighbors maligned and fined and prosecuted by the federal government on fallacious charges,” he said.
Protests of government actions can be ugly and painful, he said:
“I don’t want to be in the position of challenging the federal government – that’s my government.”
However, he sees those protests as a recourse for San Juan County residents who believe that the BLM’s management decisions are swayed in favor of outside environmental groups.
“We do not take it lightly, and it does not happen on a regular basis,” he said. “But there comes a certain point where you have to say, ‘So far shalt thou go, and go no farther,’ to quote Edmund Burke.”
Moving forward, Palma indicated that the BLM is prepared to work with San Juan County.
“We are committed to constructively addressing competing resource demands on public lands in the Monticello Field Office and will continue engaging with San Juan County and our other stakeholders to collaboratively manage these public lands,” Palma said.
Lyman countered that he has been hearing the same thing for the past six years, as Blanding-area residents wait for some word — any word — on the status of the closure.
Under the Code of Federal Regulations, the agency is required to resolve the issue in a timely manner, he said. But it hasn’t, he added.
“They’re stonewalling is what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s what spurred this protest in the first place.”
If scientific research shows that ATV traffic is damaging the canyon’s resources, Lyman said there’s a “good chance” that he and other county officials would support the BLM’s decision.
However, Lyman noted that trails in Recapture Canyon date back long before the two men were cited for building the ATV route.
Historical reports leave no question that the canyon was a major travel corridor as far back as the 1850s, he said. According to Lyman, the massive L-C and Carlisle ranches also ran large herds of cattle through the area in the late 19th Century.
While trails in the area may have been in use for decades, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) Field Attorney Liz Thomas doesn’t believe that Recapture Canyon is any place for ATVs.
“I think [last weekend’s] actions showed a disrespect for the prehistoric and ongoing Native American connections with Recapture Canyon,” Thomas said May 14.
Thomas believes they also showed a disregard for federal law.
“That type of illegal behavior is a good example of why the state and counties shouldn’t be entrusted to manage our public lands and these priceless resources,” she said.
In the future, Thomas is hopeful that the BLM won’t “cave in” to any political pressure that might arise as a result of the Recapture Canyon ride.
“The bottom line is that the BLM is entrusted to manage these public lands and these natural and cultural resources, and I think they have a duty to continue to [do that],” she said.