Recapture Canyon: Flashpoint in San Juan County

An Ancestral Puebloan ruin in Recapture Canyon.  Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.
An Ancestral Puebloan ruin in Recapture Canyon. Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman has announced he’ll lead an illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) ride in Recapture Canyon next week.  The illegal event is intended to “demonstrate the county’s sovereignty over public lands and prompt the BLM to move faster” on the county’s proposed right-of-way for an ORV trail through the canyon.  Commissioner Lyman has further claimed that his protest ride is about the jurisdictional creep of the federal government and has stated on Facebook that his motivation for the illegal ride comes from his genuine affinity for the culture, customs and history of the people of this area. (See Salt Lake Tribune article, “Tensions rising over public land use in Utah, the West”.)

What’s not clear is how that professed affinity extends to the culture, customs and history of Native Americans, past and present, or how BLM’s protection of these resources is jurisdictional creep.

Priceless Cultural Values at Risk

Recapture Canyon is home to hundreds of prehistoric cultural sites.  People once lived in Recapture – built homes there, raised children there, harvested crops there, celebrated and worshipped there, and buried their dead there.  Remarkable and priceless remnants from these agrarian communities, many eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, have been preserved through the centuries in this quiet canyon.  Current-day Native Americans claim affiliation with those prehistoric pioneers.  (See Denver Post article, “Recapture Canyon, Utah, to be site of next BLM showdown”.)

A gurgling stream flows through Recapture Canyon, providing lush wildlife habitat in an otherwise arid region.  This stream is likely what attracted the Ancestral Puebloans to the canyon 2,000 years ago.

Public Lands –our legacy to future generations

A fragment pottery found at an archaeological site in Recapture Canon.  Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.
A fragment of pottery found at an archaeological site in Recapture Canyon. Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.

An illegally constructed ORV trail plunges through the stream several times and plows directly through identified cultural sites.  In 2007, the BLM closed Recapture Canyon to ORV use due to the damage that the illegal trail and ORV use were causing to irreparable archaeological resources.  The agency subsequently fined the two men who built the illegal trail $35,000, although the archaeological damage was estimated at $310,000.  The archaeological report concluded that the “unauthorized ATV activity has permanently and significantly diminished the cultural heritage value of the archaeological resources at these sites to Native Americans and the American public as a whole . . .”

There is no shortage of ORV routes in San Juan County – there are around 4,000 miles of route on public lands managed by the Moab and Monticello BLM offices, and thousands more across southern Utah.  These routes provide ample opportunity to enjoy motorized recreation across a large and varied landscape.

We support the BLM’s continued enforcement of its ORV closure in Recapture Canyon to ensure the preservation of the canyon’s valuable cultural resources.  These artifacts are our only record of times past, and they should not be sacrificed needlessly for another ORV trail.

For more on Recapture Canyon read: