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Five Face Charges in Wake of Recapture Canyon Protest Ride

Five southern Utah men are facing federal charges for their involvement in a May protest in Recapture Canyon, a 28-mile stretch of rocky cliffs.

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.”

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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.”