Recapture Canyon ORV Crowd

Anti-federal protesters join San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on an illegal ride through Recapture Canyon. The route, which was illegally created in the first place, has been closed to motorized vehicles since 2007 due to impacts on prehistoric cultural sites.

After weeks of public posturing and saber-rattling, a Utah county commissioner on May 10th made good on his threat to stage an illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) ride into a southern Utah canyon full of archaeological treasures.  San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led dozens of anti-federal protesters, some of them armed, past signs prohibiting ORV use in Recapture Canyon.  The BLM made no effort to stop them but, according to the agency, it had cameras and law enforcement agents there to record the event and its participants for future prosecution.

Lyman charges that the BLM “arbitrarily shut down a road in San Juan County” and that the illegal ORV ride was to protest the “jurisdictional creep” of the federal government.  Nothing to quarrel with here except virtually every one of the commissioner’s facts.  First, the route is an illegally gouged trail on public lands, not a road.  Second, the BLM’s action was far from arbitrary.  The BLM based its 2007 closure of the trail to motorized vehicles on evidence that the illegally constructed ORV trail and subsequent ORV use was damaging the canyon’s prehistoric cultural resources

The Jurisdictional Creep
When Commissioner Lyman uses the words “jurisdictional creep,” he’s merely reciting one of the pet grievances of the  “States’ Rights” movement—what it sees as the federal government’s increasingly heavy hand.  He is one of a small but loud and increasingly irresponsible cadre of western elected officials worshipping at the shrine of “Take Back Federal Lands.”  And his escapade is typical.

Their little crusade, dangerous as it has become, has always been a fool’s errand.  It has no legal or historical basis and reflects an extreme view rejected by the majority of westerners.  Utah’s governor and other elected state officials enthusiastically feed the fantasies of the rabid, anti-federal right.  Their statements, and Commissioner Lyman’s violation of the BLM’s ORV closure order, illustrate perfectly why state and local officials must not be entrusted with our public lands legacy.

BLM Must Prosecute Lyman
Commissioner Lyman broke the law.  He ought to be punished for it, as should the others who violated the ORV closure order.  After riding into the area the BLM closed to protect cultural resources (including sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places), the commissioner told the media “[i]t feels great.”  It shouldn’t feel great; in fact, it should hurt.  Commissioner Lyman and his anti-federal government pals are not freedom fighters, they are lawbreakers that demonstrated a complete lack of respect for cultural heritage and values—both ancient and modern day.  The BLM, the Interior Department, and the U.S. Department of Justice must land on Commissioner Lyman and his armed gang like a ton of bricks.  If they do not, more than just our special public places are at risk: so are our public employees.

To make all this worse, San Juan County is demanding from the BLM a formal right-of-way along the illegal trail.  That request is ridiculous on its face and the BLM should treat it as precisely that.  Granting a right-of-way to the county for the illegally constructed trail would send a clear message that vandalism, illegal trail construction, and other unlawful behavior will be rewarded; it would open the floodgates for more illegal construction and vandalism to archaeological resources on public lands.

There is no certainty that the lunatic fringe will learn anything from vigorous prosecution.  But it is certain that tepidity will only embolden them.  That is how bullies think.  That is how bullies behave.

—Liz Thomas

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, summer 2014 issue)