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Fear and loathing in San Juan County

 

Last weekend, one, two, or maybe many anti-wilderness advocates in San Juan County, Utah, decided that freedom of speech wasn't good enough for them. They felt so desperate to be heard that they turned into criminals, using vandalism and threats to amplify their voices.

The target of this criminal rage? A group of elderly women. That group is called Great Old Broads for Wilderness. The organization is primarily composed of "old and gray" people, (mostly women) and its mission is to advocate and educate on behalf of the environment.  Great Old Broads has twice-yearly campouts in various locales, called "Broadwalks," where they conduct educational hikes and bring in speakers to discuss environmental issues and advocacy campaigns in that area. During the last weekend in September, about 50 "Broads" gathered in southeast Utah's canyon country, a few miles outside the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

A member of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness listens to a scientific presentation about the importance of soil crust in minimizing erosion during their recent Broadwalk in Utah's canyonlands.

On the evening of September 28 the group was vandalized. On the night of September 29 they received threatening messages and were locked into their campsite, an action that put their safety at risk.

The Broads were camping on private property, the Nature Conservancy's Dugout Ranch, which is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management land. In order to get to the campsite, one had to turn off the main road into the Needles district, drive down a BLM road, and then go through a private gate and drive into the camp. The Broads, as they are often called, had hung their vinyl banner on the gate to let members know where to turn. On the first evening of vandalism, the banner was slashed and spray-painted. The Broads took it in stride, making jokes about San Juan County residents picking on a bunch of grandmothers and "little old ladies."

Vandalism from Friday evening, cutting through the Great Old Broads banner.

On Sunday morning, a member of the group who awoke very early to leave the campsite and return to work found the exit gate padlocked shut and an old hag Halloween mask, doused in fake blood, hung in effigy on a fencepost nearby. Underneath the mask was a milk jug with the threat "Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance" inked onto it.

Veronica Egan, the executive director of Great Old Broads, then had to hike about a mile to the ranch house and find an employee with bolt cutters who could come cut the chain.

Closing off vehicle access out of a campsite is a threat to the safety of any group. When it happens to a group of elderly women, the risk is even greater.

"The last Broadwalk we were on we had two people that went to the hospital," says Rose Chilcoat, associate director at the organization. "Especially when you have that many people, you never know. It could have been a health issue; it could have been a fire. In my mind, it was as dangerous as if people had locked us into a house."

Egan, the executive director, says that unfortunately she expects her group to get picked on when they are in the Canyonlands area.  This is not the first time residents of San Juan County have threatened the Broads.

Since 2006, Great Old Broads for Wilderness has been involved in what Egan calls the "saga" of an illegally constructed trail in the area, in Recapture Wash. The illegal trail allowed motorized access into archaeological sites, and in 2006 the Great Old Broads conducted monitoring of the construction, which included a bridge, culverts and rock cribbing, raising awareness within the BLM about the trail and threats to cultural resources. The following year, the route was closed, because of vandalism to the archaeological sites in the area. Such vandalism triggers automatic closures to motorized vehicles under the Archaeological Protection Act, but locals blamed the Broads.

"Someone in San Juan county thinks that we forced the BLM to close the trail," says Egan. "If only we could force the BLM to do anything!"

Since the closure, the Broads have been involved in a working group of stakeholders, including motorized users, discussing the future of the trail. In 2010, as the working group headed out to look at the area, they encountered numerous signs. The signs read:

"Wanted dead or alive: Members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness are not allowed in San Juan County Utah."

Just a day before the September Broadwalk, the main newspaper in the San Juan County town of Blanding, the weekly Blue Mountain Panorama, ran a two-page piece that let readers know exactly where the Broads were planning to camp. A line in the article reads: "The GOBs are coming, the GOBs are coming!" In the piece, members of the local ATV group, SPEAR, are encouraged to take "a field trip to the GOB's camp to take pictures, and listen to their BS, and smile at them. Perhaps an ATV parade (on existing trails near their campsite), with members of the GOBs Board of Directors as Grand Marshalls might be appropriate." The piece concludes "maybe we should keep an eye on them while they're here…"

It's unclear if this piece of writing was considered a news story, an editorial, or an advertisement. It lacks a byline, and two phone calls and an email to the editors of the weekly (which is not online) to clarify the piece, its author, and its intent, have gone unanswered.

What is clear is the article's inflammatory tone, and that it uses details from the Great Old Broads website to outline for readers where the group is camping -- a handy tool if you're an aspiring vandal.

Blue Mountain Panorama 9-6-12 - Great Old Broads article

The Great Old Broads is not the only group experiencing hatred in San Juan County, which has long been known for its opposition to wilderness and management changes on public lands. Members of the federal government in charge of enforcing policies on public land have also experienced harassment from locals. High Country News is currently investigating this topic as well; if you have any information, please feel free to contact us.

While citizens of San Juan County are more than welcome to disagree with the positions taken by the Great Old Broads -- it's a free country, after all -- the manner in which they show their disproval is cowardly and shameful. In such a beautiful part of the world, it's saddening to see such ugly actions.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Images courtesy the author