Seven years ago, I first saw the archaeological damage that had been done to Utah’s Recapture Canyon. The extent of the destruction was stunning.
Somebody, or more likely several people, had created an illegal all-terrain vehicle trail on Bureau of Land Management land. Sections of the trail ran right through 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites, bisecting one prehistoric village the size of a football field – all this in a place that archaeologists have described as a “mini-Mesa Verde.” The scar through Recapture Canyon, just east of Blanding, Utah, is seven miles long and four feet wide.
Now comes the real shocker. San Juan County is now requesting a right of way for that same trail. And the BLM, instead of responding with outrage, is seeking public comment on what could be a precedent-setting mistake across the American West.
The canyon’s rare cliff dwellings and archaeological sites have been caught in a classic confrontation: A federal agency vs. local residents so keen to boost ATV tourism on public land that they secretly flout federal laws meant to protect our national heritage.
The controversy isn’t new. For almost a decade, San Juan County residents, BLM officials, environmentalists, archaeologists and ATV riders who belong to a group called San Juan Public Entry & Access Rights, (SPEAR), have squabbled over the fate of this canyon. The scenario has unfolded with scenes of BLM bungling that are almost painful to watch, combined with both the county and the federal agency’s surprising indifference to federal statutes that protect cultural and natural resources.
In its right-of-way application, for instance, the county declared that a scenic trail featuring ancient sites could draw tourists: “We feel this trail could generate national interest, and we may see many people making the ride.” No reference was made to damage the trail had already caused to some of these ancient sites.
Shouldn’t the BLM care about finding out who made the illegal trail in 2005? Why had a criminal investigation been stalled? It took a few years, but finally, archaeologists, working under contract with the BLM, inventoried Recapture Canyon’s cultural sites and wrote an assessment.