A reluctant rebellion in the Utah desert

For ATVers at Recapture Canyon, realpolitik meets out-of-town zeal.

  • Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner, drives his all-terrain vehicle in Recapture Canyon outside Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014. Activists seeking to directly challenge federal control of swathes of territory in the U.S. West embark on an all-terrain vehicle ride on Saturday across protected land in Utah that is home to Native American artifacts and where such journeys are banned. The ride into Recapture Canyon, which comes amid heightened political tensions, is aimed to protest against indecision by federal land managers on whether to reopen canyon trails to recreational vehicle use after more than seven years of study.

    REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
 

Weve had enough of you guys telling us what to do. Im not a violent man, but Im getting to the point where Ill blow up bridges, ruins, and vehicles. Were going to start a revolution. Were going to get back our lands. Were going to sabotage your vehicles. You had better start going out in twos and threes because were going to take care of you BLMers.

— Calvin Black, then San Juan County Commissioner, to Bureau of Land Management officials in an April 12, 1979 meeting (as reported in HCN's "Reopening of the Western Frontier").

On paper, Phil Lyman, Commissioner of San Juan County, Utah, comes across a bit like a standard  libertarian do-away-with-federal-land extremist. He speaks of “first principles,” praises Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazes his cattle on public land, and he organized a May 10 ATV ride down a trail in Recapture Canyon, which is rich with archaeological sites and closed to motorized travel, to try to assert some local say over public lands.

Lyman’s plans for a protest ride were made public shortly after the fracas at Bundy's Bunkerville ranch, in which armed militia members faced down Bureau of Land Management officers trying to round up Bundy’s cows. The ride was then touted as the “next showdown” between the feds and Sagebrush Rebels, Western anti-federal activists who have been agitating over public land management issues since the 1970s. Lyman was cast as the Bundy character; ATVs would stand in for Bundy’s trespassing cattle.

Ryan Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, rides in Recapture Canyon beyond the point at which Phil Lyman, the event's organizer, turned around. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
Several people, including this Sagebrush Rebel, watched the ATV convoy drop into Recapture Canyon as though it were a Fourth of July parade. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
Sheriff's deputies from San Juan County and surrounding jurisdictions were out in force to 'keep the peace.' They watched impassively as dozens of ATVers rode into the area closed to motorized vehicles. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

As the pre-ride rally got underway under high, puffy clouds in a park in Blanding, which sits on the edge of Recapture Canyon, the plot seemed to unfold as expected. A cadre of gun-toting Cliven Bundy supporters, including Bundy’s 40-something year-old son Ryan, listened as a variety of speakers listed the injustices Blanding had allegedly suffered under the hands of the BLM, from the closure of the Recapture trail to ATVs, to a sweeping raid of pothunters’ homes in 2009 that led to the suicide of a much-loved local doctor, Jim Redd.

But leading man Lyman — who vaguely resembles the actor John C. Reilly — refused to adhere to the Sagebrush Rebel script. He expressed disdain for the BLM, sure, and even quoted political theorist Thomas Paine. But then he adopted a soothing tone, and pleaded with the 200 or so in the audience to forgo the civil disobedience portion of the protest. He urged the group not to ride down Recapture at all, and particularly not to violate the trail closure. “My fear is that this event is looking like conflict for the sake of conflict,” he said. “I think we do more harm than good to actually cross that line today. It takes a lot of courage to go down that road, it takes a lot of courage to say you know it’s going to do more damage than good for our cause today in the media.”

The Bunkerville crew let out a collective grumble of dismay. “If we don’t open it, then we might as well go home right now,” hollered Ryan Bundy, wearing a black cowboy hat. “To hell with the media,” yelled another. When an older local bemoaned the BLM “police state,” someone said, "You've got guns, too. By God, that's what they're for!"

As the crowd fired up their ATVs, bedecked with American and Gadsden flags, a rift revealed itself between the Nevada Sagebrush Rebels and the Utah ones, between the old-school, militant rebels and the more reluctant, newer strain.

***

San Juan County contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in the United States, maybe the world (as is evidenced by the huge number of foreign tourists who visit each year). It is bordered on the west by the Colorado River and Lake Powell; the San Juan River slices through its southern edge; countless canyons drop out of the Abajo mountains and snake their way through seas of slickrock. Much of the land has been inhabited by Native Americans for centuries. The county holds a higher concentration of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings than just about anywhere else, and is now home to the Utah Navajos, the White Mesa Utes (a branch of the Ute Mountain Utes) and the San Juan Paiutes. Native Americans make up about 50 percent of the county’s population of 15,000.

About a quarter of the roughly 8,000-square-mile county is Indian land, and much of the rest is managed by the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service. Sandwiched in between are a handful of small communities, surrounded by farms and ranches. Members of those communities, particularly Blanding and Monticello, have long butted heads with the feds and environmentalists over how the public land should be managed. Much of the action in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang takes place in San Juan County, and the novel’s main antagonist, Bishop Love, is modeled on the late Calvin Black, a San Juan County Commissioner in the 60s, 70s and 80s, uranium miner, real estate tycoon and businessman, who is often referred to as the original Sagebrush Rebel.

The ideological underpinning of Black’s rebellion has been passed down to the current generation: Black resented what he called “federal colonialism,” the notion that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. can dictate what Utahns can or can’t do in their own back yards. Lyman and his ilk toe the same rhetorical line. But the context and goals have changed. Black’s primary beef with the feds was that they were purportedly closing off lands to uranium mining and other extractive industries and cattle grazing, which at the time comprised the livelihoods of Black and the county’s communities. Since then, the market has hurt those industries far more than have any governmental restrictions. The region has become far more dependent on tourism, which is in turn dependent on a landscape that hasn't been drilled, mined and grazed into a wasteland. Some of those tourists come to jeep or ride the thousands of miles of roads and trails in the county that remain open to motorized travel, giving today’s rebels some economic justification for their fights. But mostly, they seem to be fighting for motorized access as an end in itself.

And things can still get ugly. In 2012, the grassroots group Great Old Broads for Wilderness received threats when they held an event in San Juan County. Earlier that year, the BLM physically blocked a roadway in the county with a dirt berm; the county alleged that the closure was on a county road, and was illegal. After locals “outed” the BLM official allegedly responsible for the closure, someone tore around the official’s yard on an ATV, and a fellow student harassed the officer’s kid at school. In a county meeting that March, as the officer explained that the agency had blocked a user-created trail, not a county road, he was met with general hostility, even from a local sheriff’s deputy. After the officer asked that personal attacks on him and his property cease, Lyman responded: “That (personal attacks) should not happen … but I do understand how you might take something like that (the road closure) personally.” He then invoked the 2009 raids on pothunters and the Recapture issue, which, of course, is at the root of the May 10 protest.

***

Recapture Wash runs from the aspen- and conifer-covered slopes of the Abajo Mountains down into the high desert, where the waters are impounded in a reservoir, then continues southward to the San Juan River, hugging the east edge of Blanding on the way. It’s a wide-bottomed canyon that’s easy to access, and the mostly year-round water has made it a magnet for settlement for well over 1,000 years; archaeological sites are tucked beneath many an overhang along the canyon walls and dot the valley floor for much of its 30 or so miles. Most of it is on BLM land.

The canyon was long open to motorized travel, but over time the historic trail up the canyon bottom had fallen into disrepair or been inundated by beaver ponds. So in 2005 some locals went in and constructed a new trail (or maintained an old one, depending on whom you ask). The work damaged archaeological sites and raised a furor among conservationists, and two of the trail builders were ultimately fined $35,000. In 2007, the stretch of the Recapture trail was closed to motorized travel. Adding salt to the wound, the local BLM field office in 2008 issued a new management plan closing to motorized access all land that was not explicitly designated as open, a reversal of the previous policy. Though that left thousands of miles of roads and trails open to motorized use, it chafed many locals. “That’s like going from you’re innocent until proven guilty, to you’re guilty until proven innocent,” says Lyman.

Frustrated by what he calls years of “unconscionable” actions by the BLM, including road closures without local input and the heavy-handed approach to the pothunter crackdown, Lyman called a community meeting in late February. Residents talked a lot about the 2009 pothunter raids, when dozens of heavily armed federal officers came in and arrested Blanding residents, and about public land issues in general. Lyman told the crowd that the county needed to “send a message that we do live here, that this is not a remote, desolate place, but it’s actually our home.” Someone suggested using Recapture Canyon as a “stage” for the cause, and so the ride was devised as a general protest that reached beyond the trail, itself. “I have said a number of times,” wrote Lyman on his Facebook page, “this protest is not about Recapture, or about ATVs, it is about the jurisdictional creep of the federal government.”

As a small group of riders passed beyond the end of the Recapture road, onto a more primitive trail, a group of spectators waved flags and yelled, 'Thank you sir!' to each passing vehicle. Ride organizer Phil Lyman proceeded past the trail closure, but he did not go past this line onto more sensitive lands. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
A group of militia members made the trip from the Bundy Ranch in Nevada to Blanding to support and participate in the protest. Several carried unconcealed firearms. All in all, however, there may have been more camera-toting media members than there were gun-toting militia members. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
One ATV rider from Monticello carried a sign that said 'I support Commissioner Lyman' on one side and 'I support Sheriff Eldredge' on the other. When he gave a reporter a ride down the canyon, he asked: 'Are you for us, or are you against us?' Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

That may sound like an unabashed Sagebrush Rebel speaking, but in interviews leading up to the protest Lyman took a relatively measured tone, on the one hand, while still implicitly inviting along the Bundy supporters — now under FBI investigation for aiming weapons at federal agents — on the other. At the pre-ride rally, when he was booed for suggesting that the ATVers obey the closure and stay out of Recapture, Lyman looked as if he wished he could have taken the invitation back. His fellow county commissioners had refused to back the ride, and Navajo and Hopi tribal members had condemned the ride for showing disrespect to Native culture and artifacts. Lyman’s planned act of civil disobedience clearly didn’t have universal local support. Now, the people who had flocked from miles away to support Lyman were displeased with him, too.

Though Lyman’s reticence to ride the trail was shared by Michael Swenson, from the Utah Shared Access Alliance, a motorized access advocacy organization, and other locals, Lyman ultimately caved, at least partially. After buzzing through Blanding's streets, a convoy of three- and four-wheelers, joined by some Jeeps and pickups and a couple dozen pedestrians, invaded the silence of Recapture Canyon. A handful of riders carried sidearms, and a few had assault rifles, including a burly young man wearing a "Venomous American" t-shirt who rode with one hand fingering the trigger, the other on his handlebars. The whirr of motors mingled with the intense aroma of sagebrush; a cloud of fine dust obscured the vehicles, and settled in mouths, ears, eyes, hair. Most of the convoy rolled right on past the closure sign without pause, and without a word from any of the many Sheriff’s deputies out in force to “keep the peace.” There wasn’t a uniformed BLM officer in sight, though the agency later said they were on hand, incognito, and that they will prosecute the offenders.

Lyman went beyond the closure, but stopped when he came to the end of a county road that follows the path of a water pipeline, thus avoiding a smaller and more sensitive trail, where the potential for impact to archaeological resources was far greater. But Bundy and others tore down the path, paying no heed to the sagebrush that had grown into it since the closure. Lyman watched them go, saying he wished they hadn’t. Perhaps he was thinking about what Stefnee Turk, of the San Juan Alliance, said during the rally: “I want to ask that we be respectful and responsible… the consequences, negative and positive, will reflect on the people of this community,” not on those who could just load up their trucks and go back home.

Back at the trailhead, a few locals were on hand to watch and show their support without traveling down the canyon. As a group of blonde kids passed with matching "Don't Tread on Me" t-shirts, it felt a bit as if we were watching a Fourth of July Parade. Looking on was a tall, weathered man with a long, thin ponytail and a vest emblazoned with a somewhat threatening-looking San Juan County Sagebrush Rebel logo on the back. As I snapped a photo, a voice said, “My brother was the original Sagebrush Rebel." I looked over to see an older woman, Marilyn Lyman, sitting in the shade of a scrub oak, a smile on her face. "Calvin Black," she added, when she saw the question in my eyes.

“We need another Calvin Black,” she said, “and Phil might be it.” (It turned out she was Phil’s aunt.) Somehow, I don't think Black would have stopped at road's end, and he would have been piloting a bulldozer, not an ATV. But then, the world has changed a lot since Black's days; I suppose it makes sense that the Sagebrush Rebels would change along with it.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

Edwin D Coleman III
Edwin D Coleman III Subscriber
May 13, 2014 04:37 PM
It's extremists like those -- waving the flag of the country they disavow and whose laws they disobey -- who redefine the acronym "ATV" as "A**holes, Trespassers and Vandals."
Charles Hopton
Charles Hopton Subscriber
May 13, 2014 04:38 PM
It is sad to see this happen. I have enjoyed visiting Blanding and the surrounding public lands for many years. I have met many wonderful people in Blanding. I'll find it hard to look at people in Blanding without wondering if they are tearing up public land and desecrating the artifacts of an ancient culture.
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
May 13, 2014 05:33 PM
Those "Sagebrush Rebels" have every right to enjoy Recapture Canyon. On foot. Legally. Just like anyone else can. Maybe they could take their cute little kids, like the one sitting on that ATV, for a hike in the canyon. On the way they could point out the pretty wildflowers this time of year. Listen to the birds. Maybe show them some petroglyphs and also tell them they should never deface them. But no. They harp about the Constitution---did they notice the first word in our country's name is "United"? Federal law is supposed to trump state law. I am so sick of these land-grabbers, whether they are ATVers or gas/oil drillers; the only reason they want our Federal lands is so they can destroy them. The local sheriffs who stand by are the worst of all. Here in Idaho a group of sheriffs had town hall meetings and loudly announced that if any new federal gun control laws were passed, they would refuse to enforce them. Maybe we need a bunch of environmentalists armed with equally impressive assault rifles to stand at the entrance to places like Recapture Canyon and block the ATVs. It's like the old days where Greenpeace or other activists used to chain themselves up in front of bulldozers, except this time with guns. See who shoots first. Maybe then the BLM would actually grow a pair!
Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
May 13, 2014 06:31 PM
I am doubtful that here in red state Utah there will ever by any arrests. Environmentalists do time, cowboys make their own rules.
Southwest Backcountry
Southwest Backcountry
May 13, 2014 07:16 PM
These people are mistaking motor vehicle rights for land rights, land rights for civil liberties, and civil liberties for a teenage "I do what I want" attitude. They need some parenting.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
May 13, 2014 07:53 PM
You dance with them what brung you. I don't have a lot of sympathy for Lyman.
Peter Kempenich
Peter Kempenich
May 14, 2014 05:59 AM
The ATV crowd should simply get off their fat arses and hike! Militias are want a be Rambos and are no better than gangs that need to be arrested and disarmed because they are a hazard to people. As for the Bureau of Land management (BLM) those officials charged to protect the public lands are required to enforce the laws enacted by Congress to protect the environment and associated natural resources. Law breakers deserve to be incarcerated.
      
Howard Paley
Howard Paley
May 14, 2014 07:46 AM
This willful act of defiance was strictly intended to outrage and capture headlines. It is nothing more than a shameful act of civil disobedience that is both unjustified and criminal. The protection of this canyon and its sacred sites was well reasoned ... not some random decision by a privileged few or imposed by a bunch of government bureaucrats. It only restricted the method of access to prevent further degradation of this rich resource area ... not the ability, as a previous writer commented, the ability to experience the silence, diversity and wonder of this place.
Tim Crowell
Tim Crowell
May 14, 2014 10:00 AM
They're domestic terrorists and need to be treated as such. They're also lazy, fat asses who don't want to use the legs that god gave them. Walk if you want to go somewhere. If only the Native folk would have scalped a few, then order would have been restored. As for Bundy? He should be hauled off and put in jail for criminal trespass, destruction of protected land and being a total asshole.
Mike Sennett
Mike Sennett Subscriber
May 14, 2014 10:06 AM
I will be visiting San Juan County later this year to scatter some of my best friend's ashes at Muley Pt., the Goosenecks of the San Juan & at the top of the Moki Dugway. I will make every effort not to spend one penny in San Juan County.I grew up in Central NY- almost all the Eastern US outside of parks is private land and you can't wander at will where you want.These Utahns have almost unlimited access to spectacular public land & they still aren't satisfied because they can't ride their machines everywhere they please. They are arrogant, irresponsible & unreasonable & do not deserve any of my money.
Bryan Starrett
Bryan Starrett
May 14, 2014 10:40 AM
"The ideological underpinning of Black’s rebellion has been passed down to the current generation: Black resented what he called “federal colonialism,” the notion that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. can dictate what Utahns can or can’t do in their own back yards."

Evidently the Sagebrush Rebels don't grasp - or refuse to acknowledge - the concept of federal land held in public trust. That this BLM land is in "their own back yards" does not give San Juan county residents any more proprietary claim than residents of upstate Vermont or Southern California. Every citizen is a stakeholder.
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
May 14, 2014 11:05 AM
from the names in this article I would speculate that the majority in protest are of Mormon stock? ( por ejemplo,lyman, redd, black are old historical "Mormon" names). my point, why doesn't the church "reign in" their wayward brethren who don't abide by the laws of this land? over a hundred years ago the church crushed polygamy, now the church needs to step up and thwart atvs running over sacred native landscapes......
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
May 14, 2014 12:44 PM
President James Buchanan sent Federal troops to the Utah territory in 1857-1858 to show that Utah was not its own republic. Maybe that's what's necessary now to bring this lawless renegades under the rule of law. The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Aiken massacre took place in this part of Utah and no doubt these are their descendants. Ryan Bundy is a Mormon Moron who should be sent to prison. The longer these backwoods imbeciles are allowed to defy the laws of the land, the more arrogant than will become. I would parachute the 102nd Airborne in before I would let these dead enders get away with this. They all belong in prison before someone gets killed.
chuck dunn
chuck dunn
May 14, 2014 07:14 PM
 "" It is nothing more than a shameful act of civil disobedience that is both unjustified and criminal."" WAS HOWARD TALKING ABOUT THE BOSTON TEA PARTY??
chuck dunn
chuck dunn
May 14, 2014 07:20 PM
CRISTA ,PETER ,TIM SOME DAY YOU WILL BE TOO OLD TO HIKE.. OR MAYBE ONE OF YOUR FRIENDS IS A DISABLED VET. THE SOONER THE ADA ATTORNEYS GET INVOLVED THE BETTER.. THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TREAT OUR LAND LIKE THEIR OWN BACK YARD. THEY HAVE KEYS TO ALL THE GATES.. THE CONGRESSPERSONS HAVE THE HELICOPTERS..
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
May 14, 2014 08:31 PM
Chuck, to paraphrase Edward Abbey when he wrote about building more roads in the Four Corners region -- the elderly had a chance to see the country before it got so crowded and abused. If they chose not to, that's on them. The thing you seem to keep forgetting is that it's "our" land, not just yours to use as you see fit but everyone's land. There will always be disagreements about how to use it and the government's function is to act as a mediator in implementing that management. There are plenty of places for you to ride your 4-wheeler without damaging irreplaceable archeological sites. Quit whining and go ride in the places that are open. If you manage to ride them all, come back and talk to us again.
Kevin Kane
Kevin Kane Subscriber
May 15, 2014 12:02 AM
If I was a welfare rancher, perhaps I too could afford an expensive ATV. The season is now open for Bundy cattle on public land. I wonder if the local sheriff would prosecute ? Grass fed beef, high in Omega 3 fatty acids, higher LDL:HDL ratio, although the cattle I have seen in pictures look pretty nasty.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
May 16, 2014 06:31 PM
Now we have part of society who follow laws they only like. That is called anarchy.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
May 16, 2014 06:51 PM
Chuck Dunn, your comment is so idiotic that it defies a response.
Orville Bach
Orville Bach Subscriber
May 27, 2014 10:09 PM
I have little sympathy for those who say they are too old, physically disabled, obese, or just too lazy to get off their butts and walk into special places. My gosh, we have a zillion miles of roads and our population just keeps growing. If you are too old, too fat or too lazy to walk, then I feel your pain. At age 67 I’m starting to feel aches and pains from my backpacking trips and I know that in the not too distant future, I will not be able to continue to backpack or dayhike into neat canyons or get up in the high country. But does that mean as we get older and our physical abilities decline we should demand motorized access into wilderness? Is that fair to our kids?

As our population grows and wilderness continues to shrink, it seems rather selfish to deprive younger generations the opportunity to escape the noise and congestion of our fast-paced society and find solace in wild, quiet untrammeled country. I’m reminded of the quote: “Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.”

Our wildlife certainly needs wild country. Motorized access in wild country is never beneficial for wildlife. But please, please don't use the tired, old whine of "it's locked up." No it isn't. Get off your butt and walk. If you can't do that anymore, fine, there are a ton of other places you can ride your ATV. Leave a few places alone for our kids and grandkids.
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
May 29, 2014 08:31 AM
congratulaions Phil Lyman, Blanding residents and you militia idiots: no better case has been made for continued federal control of public lands than YOUR BEHAVIOR in this incident. thank you for demonstrating to the entire nation that you're totally unworthy of any public support on your position (except, of course, from the inbred gun-toting militia hillbillies like Bundy who are WONDERFUL folks to have on your side in the court of public opinion, given that EVERYBODY would just love to sign up on the Ignoramus Team!)

give a fool enough rope...
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
May 29, 2014 09:02 AM
btw, for those respectable and intelligent citizens appalled by the behavior of these CRIMINALS, please sign the following petition to help ensure that these disrespectul wackos get the justice they deserve:

http://betterutah.org/[…]/

"Tim DeChristopher spent almost two years in prison for an act of civil disobedience when he peacefully disrupted a BLM oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City. The BLM aggressively pursued charges against DeChristopher. He broke the law and went to prison for it.

Earlier this month, a group of protesters led by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, and including Cliven Bundy’s son, illegally rode ATVs through a protected section of Recapture Canyon near Blanding, Utah. The canyon is protected because it houses significant ecological and archaeological sites. Indeed, local Native American tribes consider the land sacred. Yet Lyman and his band ignored pleas by local tribes and BLM officials and instead rode motorized vehicles over the protected land, calling it an act of civil disobedience.

Lyman and his band broke the law. They should be held accountable.

Sign our petition to tell US Attorney David Barlow and Utah BLM Director Juan Palma to hold the protesters and armed militia accountable for riding their ATVs through Recapture Canyon and breaking the law. The law should be applied fairly and uniformly."
Mike Quinones
Mike Quinones
Jun 22, 2014 12:44 PM
"Sagebrush Rebels", who display deadly force protest against individuals who represent the agencies which, to the best of their ability and since the beginning of our development of the west protecting and managing our public lands, have no problem extending their hand for a federal subsidy. These are the same individuals who, in the aftermath of a natural disaster have no issue demanding the Federal Government aka FEMA, to intervene, hand out checks and rebuild their community. They drive on the freeways paid for by federal highway funds and live under the security and protection of a government they openly express contempt for. It's not easy to be governed at any level. To quote Jeremy Bentham, whose philosophy is known as Utilitarianism, and mirror the moral compass of Gifford Pinchot and his mentor Theodore Roosevelt, "The greatest good for the greatest number". This is a difficult task and there will always be people dissatisfied with decisions which exclude them from doing what ever they feel necessary to express their self-determination. To revolt in a manner which risks deadly escalation is deplorable and exposes their lack of understanding for the big picture. The total and blatant disrespect for Native American heritage and culture is born from societal ignorance and lack of sensitivity. And to you Ryan Bundy, get a helmet on those cute little kids of yours. It would be a shame to have the state take over their life long medical care if they receive a traumatic brain injury from a tragic ATV accident.