AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Trent Nelson
Ryan Bundy, son of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, rides an ATV into Recapture Canyon north of Blanding, Utah on Saturday, May 10, 2014, in a protest against what demonstrators call the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands. The area has been closed to motorized use since 2007 when an illegal trail was found that cuts through Ancestral Puebloan ruins. The canyon is open to hikers and horseback riders.

Five Face Charges in Wake of Recapture Canyon Protest Ride

Alysa Landry

Five southern Utah men are facing federal charges for their involvement in a May protest in Recapture Canyon, a 28-mile stretch of colorful rocky cliffs, fragrant juniper trees and evidence of ancient Anasazi occupancy.

The men, including San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Phil Lyman, are each being charged with two misdemeanors stemming from a May 10 protest in the canyon, which the Bureau of Land Management closed to motorized vehicles seven years ago. More than 100 protestors participated and several individuals drove all-terrain vehicles into the canyon.

RELATED: ATVs in Recapture Canyon: What Are They Fighting For?

According to the BLM, the canyon was closed to preserve archaeological resources that were being damaged, including rock art, cliff dwellings and graves dating back 2,000 years. According to Lyman, who organized the protest, the closure was an example of federal muscle defeating local interests.

“The protest wasn’t about Recapture Canyon or ATVs,” he said. “It was about the BLM making arbitrary rules.”

The iconic land of southern Utah—sandstone cliffs, deep canyons and vast desert vistas—is a checkerboard of jurisdictions that includes federal, state and tribal land. In San Juan County, which sits in the southeast corner of the state and borders Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, only eight percent of the total 8,000 square miles is privately owned.

Recapture Canyon, located on federal public land near the small town of Blanding, for generations has offered outdoor recreation close to home, Lyman said. The BLM closed the canyon in 2007 after the county filed a right-of-way application for construction of an ATV trail on top of existing trails.

The BLM is working on an environmental analysis of the canyon and is expected to issue a final decision this year on the right-of-way proposal. Meanwhile, the canyon is open for walking, hiking and horseback riding.

But Lyman and several hundred supporters claim the BLM took the canyon “hostage” for seven years and that the government agency is using archaeology as weapon.

RELATED: ATV Protest Rides Through Native American Sacred Sites

“Recapture was an open area with a trail that had been there for 100 years, maybe 1,000 years,” he said. “People were already making that loop on ATVs; we just wanted to promote it.”

Before the canyon was a destination for ATVs, however, it was a sacred site for indigenous people, said Mark Maryboy, who is Navajo and a former San Juan County commissioner.

“Recapture is viewed as being very significant among all of the ancient tribes in the West,” he said. “In the Navajo religion, these sites are used to heal a person physically or psychologically. The spirits of the ancients are used to restore harmony and balance, and to holistically bring people back to health.”

Medicine men frequent the canyon to make offerings or gather herbs, Maryboy said. When protestors entered the canyon in May, they brought an outside quarrel onto sacred land.

“It is unfortunate that they decided to protest in Recapture,” he said. “There are lots of places to go to make a point. They didn’t have to choose a sacred, ancient site.”

The protest came on the heels of another high-profile clash over public lands. Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in April led a stand-off against federal officials over unpaid grazing fees and his assertion that he has “vested rights” to graze on the land. Bundy’s son, Ryan Bundy, participated in the May protest in southern Utah.

Kenny Frost, a member of the nearby Southern Ute Indian Tribe, works as a consultant to educate the BLM and other agencies about the cultural significance of sacred sites. He pointed to parallels between the two protests and to conflicts over the rights to land.

“Basically we have people who are shying away from government control,” he said. “People who are saying this is public land and we can ride our ATVs wherever we please. We can ride them over ancient ruins because these people aren’t here anymore.”

Calling the BLM the “keeper of sacred sites,” Frost said the government has a duty to uphold all laws that protect archaeological evidence of the past. Laws apply even when sites are discovered inadvertently, he said—and even if the public must forfeit certain rights.

“We Natives have the right to protect people who were here long ago,” he said. “We fought to ensure our ancestors would not be disturbed.”

Southern Utah is peppered with evidence of past civilizations, archaeologist Jody Patterson said. The ground in some areas is covered with pottery shards, arrowheads and other items. Federal laws like the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archeological Resources Protection Act ensure such sites are safeguarded for future generations.

Although laws on public land are not as strict as those for national parks, the intent is the same, Patterson said. Unlike national parks, more remote, off-the-map sites offer a unique chance to commune with the past.

“Places like Recapture are special because they’re well preserved and you can connect with them on an intimate level,” he said. “You can appreciate the feeling, setting and environment of what you’re looking at.”

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
“The protest wasn’t about Recapture Canyon or ATVs,” he said. “It was about the BLM making arbitrary rules.” ___________________________________________________________ Arbitrary rules? You mean you DON'T agree that you SHOULD NOT be riding ATVs through cemeterys? ___________________________________________________________- " “Basically we have people who are shying away from government control,” he said. “People who are saying this is public land and we can ride our ATVs wherever we please. We can ride them over ancient ruins because these people aren’t here anymore.” _______________________________________________________ The people in Arlington National Cemetery aren't here anymore either. Would you ride your ATV through that? Let's face it, these people are just White, assholes who feel they're entitled to anything they want.

rockymissouri's picture
Submitted by rockymissouri on
Good. Prosecute the creeps. Maybe somebody will think of them the next time they have a stupid idea..!!

ThePetroglyph's picture
Submitted by ThePetroglyph on
Are you serious? This canyon has been the major access for whites as well as indigenous folks for thousands of years. Commissioner Maryboy is just playing the race card because he has never been in the section of canyon that was closed to do anything. In the commission meeting he mentioned his feelings about archaeology as a whole and he never said anything like this because it is all BS. The only sites that might have impact are possibly midden residue that has been moved through transference through time due to natural elements and thousands of years of canyon uses. This is the same with 99% of every road in San Juan County and on the Navajo Reservation. Highway 191, 163, 95, and all the county B, C, and D roads come in contact with or travel through archaeological sites. So if a trail in recapture is a problem then every road in the county is a problem. The Anasazi buried their dead in the trash piles (Middens), the floors of their homes, and other areas. Over the 10,000 or 12,000 years that people have been in this area they have been buried in many different areas, ways, and methods. So maybe we should all move out of the county so we never run across one of these burials. Still today old pottery shards are re-used buy some traditional pottery makers for temper. The old Anasazi shards are gathered and re-crushed for modern temper and why not what value do they really have? The value they have is they make good temper for making pottery. We need to get past this romanticism that Maryboy is trying to sell and be honest. Everyone has areas in this county they would consider sacred to them, and every the government man or politicians want to solicit the Dine's support or other indigenous people they do just what Maryboy is doing by playing the sacred and traditional use card. They have been using this with the lands bill and telling the Dine that they need their help to protect these areas on Cedar Mesa. They just don't tell the people that as soon as their is a national monument or a national conservation area designated it will create more restrictions for wood gathering and the gathering of herbs. What do you think there is to gain from the type of comments made by Maryboy and others? Closures and restrictions apply to everyone and how many elderly or disabled Dine are going to be able to use the canyon if access is closed. How many Dine will be able to heat their house when Cedar Mesa receives a federal designation? Every citizen in San Juan County is in the same boat here and we can up hold racial divides and hatreds and lose everything or be honest an gain true liberty of self governing. The land has been used for thousands of years and the evidence in the four corners is abundant of that fact, but it is the home of indigenous people as well as other groups of people the past is great to know but the present is what truly matters. This division of the people is what is destroying us and the politicians and money whores use and perpetuate the conflict to their advantage only. Maryboy is no different and those that know him know I'm speaking the truth.