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Phil Lyman: The BLM hasn't kept its own rules

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 1:41 p.m. MDT

Hundreds of protesters gather to ride on recreational trail in Recapture Canyon that was organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman in protest of what he says is the agonizingly slow decision-making process of the BLM, the county has been seeking a right-of-way for more then seven years, Saturday, May 10, 2014, in San Juan County. (Alan Neves, KSL TV) Hundreds of protesters gather to ride on recreational trail in Recapture Canyon that was organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman in protest of what he says is the agonizingly slow decision-making process of the BLM, the county has been seeking a right-of-way for more then seven years, Saturday, May 10, 2014, in San Juan County. (Alan Neves, KSL TV)

When approaching a hot topic like Recapture Canyon, facts are imperative. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), rather than listening to local people about their own experience, is taking direction from groups from outside Utah.

Those who live next to Recapture Canyon are earnest in their desire to have the truth be told. In 2007 the BLM did an emergency temporary closure under federal regulations. The regulations state that “A closure or restriction order should be considered only after other management strategies and alternatives have been explored including cooperative efforts with local governments and organizations.” It also states: “The BLM policy requires that temporary closures or restrictions must be 24 months or less in duration.”

The BLM chose to violate their own rules and take away an existing right-of-way over public land. They had every opportunity to remedy their concerns with re-routes or signage, yet ignored local interests in favor of loud external voices. “There was a small cadre of folks who know the canyon well and have been actively involved in garnering the limited protection it has with the closure, said Rose Chilcoat, associate director of The Great Old Broads For Wilderness.” ("Hundreds gather to protest BLM closure of Recapture Canyon"). Do these people know about history of Recapture in the past 150 years? More importantly, do they care?

In my recent piece about Recapture, I said: “That is the story of Recapture: Taking something special and using it as leverage over those who value it most. It is a ploy at least as old as King Solomon” (“Community space 'Recaptured',“ April 11). That is the reality of what is happening in Recapture Canyon.

Some have made the claim that the trail did not exist prior to 2005. To justify closure of the canyon, the BLM would have had to show “Hazardous material spills, ongoing wildland fires, or emergency stabilizations actions following wildland fires or other disasters.” Two upstanding and respected men were charged with “carving, bulldozing, blazing,” a new trail. But these charges are false.

Remember, in 2005 this area was considered open for motorized traffic. The county does not assert any ownership of the land, but we do claim existing right-of-way roads, trails, and paths. The county may formally abandon those trails and roads, and the county may change their uses. But the BLM acted outside their jurisdiction by unilaterally closing the road. The seven years since the closure have been nothing more than stonewalling, frustrating, maligning, and falsely accusing local people in an effort to justify the overreach.

Some have asked why a County Commissioner would lead what they have called an “illegal protest.” The reason would be found in the oath that local officials take to protect the customs, culture, morals, history, health, safety, and welfare, of constituents. This is not an action taken lightly. Saturday was no joy ride: it was a protest — an expression of objection and dissent related to the actions of the BLM, which, so far, we have been unable to affect.

IIf the BLM can take this right-of-way without following prescribed procedures, what can they not take? If a protest is done only in compliance with the wishes of the BLM, why protest at all?

I contacted the BLM within two days of a town hall meeting where we determined the protest was in order. They had two months to respond with some indication of a desire to work out our differences. I told State Director Juan Palma that if BLM would show us the desired re-route of the trail, I would have 300 people there and we would leave our ATVs up top and hike in and do a service project. If he wanted us to leave our shovels up top, we would hike in and have the BLM show us their plans. This was met with a flurry of legalistic and threating communications.

This is not the way to deal with local government. Ultimately, we have a government of the people. Our BLM area manager, Lance Porter, told me in a meeting in February that the BLM could be delayed indefinitely by outside interest groups willing to sue. I said that this showed a lack of genuine authority and leadership on the part of the BLM. When he acknowledged my frustration by saying “unfortunately you have no other options,” I responded, “People always have options.”

Federal regulations state very clearly that the BLM is obligated to give "cooperation" status to local governments in determining the use of public lands. The statute explains this cooperation status as such: the BLM must keep apprised of local plans for land use inventory, planning, and management; meaningful involvement must be assured for local government officials in planning, development, and revision councils; and, should inconsistencies arise, they are to be resolved with preference for local plans. In short, the BLM is supposed to give priority first to local interest and county master land use plans and then let public opinion weigh in. So, while public lands are available to all, there is a legal priority guaranteed to locals in determining land use.

Recapture Canyon is the canyon closest to Blanding. It is the canyon with the most history related to the founders of Blanding and Monticello. It is of deep significance, and there is more that needs to be said. Those who are willing to look past the rhetoric and misinformation about Recapture Canyon will find the truth.

Phil Lyman is the San Juan County commissioner.

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