Illegal ATV ride in Utah showcases public lands battle

Published: Saturday, May 10 2014 6:00 p.m. MDT

Hundreds of protesters gather to ride on recreational trails in Recapture Canyon in an event organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to protest what he says is the agonizingly slow decision-making process of the BLM, on Saturday, May 10, 2014. The county has been seeking a right-of-way for more then seven years.

Alan Neves, Deseret News

BLANDING — Utah was once again the contentious stage for people taking a stand over what happens on public lands, when a fervent few dozen off-roaders embarked on an illegal ride Saturday into San Juan County's Recapture Canyon.

In 2008, it was Timothy DeChristopher who broke a federal law over what he feared would happen on land outside of national parks — drilling for oil and natural gas.

Six years later, it is a San Juan County commissioner who organized an illegal ATV ride to vent their frustration over what isn't happening — access.

DeChristopher was convicted for monkeywrenching a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction and sent to federal prison.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman ultimately urged riders to avoid illegal portions of the land Saturday, arguing that the ride had achieved its goal in raising awareness. Still, a bunch of ATV enthusiasts flouted federal trespassing laws and ventured into banned areas.

Juan Palma, Utah director of the BLM, said agents noted the illegal activity on the closed ATV trail and the agency will pursue applicable charges.

"We know from the archaeological record left behind in Recapture Canyon that the area was previously occupied for at least 2,000 years," Palma said in a statement. "Illegal ATV use within Recapture Canyon 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."

The ride was organized by Lyman in protest of what he says is the agonizingly slow decision-making process of the BLM. The county is seeking right-of-way for a recreational trail in Recapture Canyon — a process that began more than seven years ago.

"People are hugely frustrated," said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams. ATV trail closures, the threatened listing of the Gunnison sage grouse and a county with only 10 percent of its lands in private or state ownership is leaving residents and officials feeling pinched by the federal government at every turn, he added.

"People are ready to draw a line in the sand, they're ready to push back."

This latest tempest in the West over federal land management policies drew a sympathetic audience with the Cliven Bundy family, who went toe to toe with BLM officials last month over unpaid grazing fees and a threat to seize their cattle.

Ryan Bundy, Cliven's son, made the drive from the family's southern Nevada ranch to lend Lyman his moral support, and rev up the crowd in the process.

Depite Lyman's urging to ride where it was legal to do so, Ryan Bundy rode in a prohibited portion of the land. He said staying where it was legal to ride defeated the purpose of the protest.

"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."

Cade Lewis also participated in the ride Saturday and opted to go onto illegal land.

"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 said.

San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldridge said deputies from three counties were present Saturday, but focused on keeping the peace, not enforcing any boundaries.

"Any citations, that will come from the BLM," Eldridge said. "They're the ones that closed the road."

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