The BLM should do the right thing and protect Recapture Canyon

Ancient structural site2 Recapture Canyon’s cool, flowing stream provides year-round water, lush vegetation, and a haven for wildlife.  This idyllic setting was likely the reason that nearly 2000 years ago, Ancestral Puebloans begin inhabiting Recapture Canyon.  These agrarian communities thrived in Recapture for more than 1000 years.  Remarkable remnants of their culture, such as the ancient structural site at left, have been preserved through the years along the stream banks and benches in this quiet canyon in southeastern Utah.  The silence was broken in 2005, when a 20-mile illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) trail was constructed in Recapture, damaging several of these ancient sites, and increasing the potential for future damages.

Last week, a Federal Magistrate levied fines, totaling $35,000 on two Blanding men who were charged with damaging federal property when they illegally constructed the ORV trail.  After conducting the investigation, filing charges and ultimately prevailing in the criminal case, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will surely keep the illegal trail closed to ORV use, right?  Well . . . not if San Juan County, UT gets its way.

Pot shards After the illegal trail was built, San Juan County requested that the BLM essentially legitimize the illegally constructed trail and grant a right-of-way to the county for the ATV trail.  To its credit, and before issuing a right-of-way to the county, the BLM had a cultural resource survey conducted along the illegal trail.  The survey reported that the illegal trail crosses directly through numerous ancient cultural sites (see pot shards found on the ATV trail at right).  ATVs using this trail would run over archaeological sites that are considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the illicit construction, the BLM eventually closed the illegal trail to motor vehicle use to protect the archaeological sites from further damage and vandalism.  The Hopi Tribe has requested that the BLM make the closure permanent due to the sensitive nature of the cultural resources in the canyon.

The BLM should stay the course and protect the natural and cultural resources in Recapture Canyon.  Giving in to San Juan County’s pressure for a right-of-way for the illegal trail would be a contradiction of the BLM’s legal duties, and would send a conflicting message:  On the one hand, the BLM will seek criminal penalties and fines for persons who illegally construct trails on public lands, while on the other hand, the agency will reward the illegal action by giving the illegal trail to the county for ORV use.

There is no shortage of ORV trails in San Juan County — ORV enthusiasts can enjoy over 5,000 miles (!) of ORV routes and trails on BLM lands, with even more trails on U.S. Forest Service lands.  Thus, the BLM should do the right thing and maintain the existing closure order to protect the irreplaceable cultural artifacts in Recapture Canyon.