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ATVs in Recapture Canyon: What Are They Fighting For?

Bureau of Land Management land is being fought for by ATV riders who refuse to recognize the sacredness of the area. Why and what do tribes think?

An All Terrain Vehicle rally brought 60 ATV riders out on Saturday, May 10 to challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to protect Recapture Canyon in San Juan County, Utah. The BLM closed the path to motorized vehicles in 2007 in an emergency action after ATV riders attempted to widen the road and caused significant damage to 31 archaeological sites. The area is ancestral to the Hopi, Navajo, Utes, and other local tribes.

RELATED: ATV Protest Rides Through Native American Sacred Sites

There are 2,800 miles of ATV trails in the area surrounding Recapture Canyon, which is the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Of that, only 1,870 acres of that land are closed off to ATVs by the BLM. Yet that small amount of land is being fought for by ATV riders who refuse to recognize the sacredness of the area, and are instead putting their fight for state’s right ahead of the respect for the history and remains of the area’s people.

“There are burial grounds, human remains of the ancestors of people living and thriving there today. It is as much about preserving resources as it is about respect, and we have to respect that the canyon is a place of human remains,” Megan Crandall, BLM Utah spokesperson, said, citing that Recapture Canyon holds an extraordinary amount of archaeological evidence.

Frank White, a member of the popular ATV groups Tread Lightly and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said both organizations were opposed to the ride. “I feel bad for what went on. To me they were down there to cause trouble, they wanted an incident.”

White said, “Carrying guns and the flag, they were out here to cause a fight. I call them Freedom Fighters and they just don’t want to be told what to do. It’s embarrassing; and then on tribal land, it’s just a big no-no. I don’t believe motorcycles and ATVs need to be everywhere.”

The basis of the rally, organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, was to reopen the trails that the BLM closed in 2007 to ATV traffic. 

If Saturday’s rally damaged the area, Crandall said it could delay the environmental assessment the BLM is working on—hindering what Lyman was trying to move forward.

An April 28, 2014 letter from the BLM warned Lyman that there would be consequences for anyone who rides into areas that have been closed, with additional penalties for any destruction that may occur.

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Lyman said he knows the area is sacred but somehow believes that ATV riders can preserve the area while riding down paths too narrow to pass without damaging the area.

“The trail within the closure area is very narrow. There are many points throughout the closed area where there are remains, relics, artifacts.” Crandall said. “Some are right next to the trail and some are even on the trail. You are risking those resources by using those vehicles.”

In a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, Willie Grayeyes, chair of a nonprofit that lobbies to protect Navajo land, wrote that a Veterans Retreat had to be cancelled because of the rally.

“This opportunity for healing, to help these men and women has been postponed due to the threats of illegal activities by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on behalf of those who desire to drive their ATV toys over the sacred ruins of others.” Grayeyes wrote. “Contrary to the beliefs of many, southeastern Utah was not an empty place that no one wanted just waiting to be inhabited by European settlers or discovered as a recreation playground, but rather it was and remains our home.”

Lyman has complained that Blanding’s ancestors used that path 150 years ago to travel north and the townspeople have a right to the area, which is still legally accessible on foot and on horseback.

“I understand the viewpoint that many of the descendants of the original Blandings were there 150 years ago, but I would also say that the Native Americans have been here for two millennia,” Crandall responded.

Gari Lafferty, chairman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, wishes the BLM would offer education on the area to ATV riders. While ATVs have always been a concern to Natives in the area, she said, “I know a lot of people are very respectful but they are not aware of what’s out there. The BLM needs to make a conscious effort to let people know why they need to preserve it.”

“The BLM works very hard to manage public land for multiple use in a way that preserves and maintains it for future generations. But multiple use does not mean every use on every acre,” Crandall said.

“We are investigating the damage, and will be pursuing all redress through the legal system,” she said. “Once we have concluded the investigation, we’ll refer all evidence to the U.S. Attorney for civil and/or criminal action. We had law enforcement there who were recording and collecting information about all of the individuals who chose to break the law.”