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

Update Dec. 18, 2015:

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was sentenced today to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and a $1,000 fine for organizing and participating in an ATV ride in an area that was closed to motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon in 2014. Monte Wells, a local blogger who participated in the ride, was given five days in jail and three years of probation.

The sentences are piled on top of $96,000 in restitution the two must pay for damage done to archaeological sites during the ride. Both men were anything but defiant during the hearing. Lyman said that the protest was never intended to be an "anti-government rally," and that "there are things I truly, truly wish I had done differently." Wells also expressed regret.

The two were convicted of two federal misdemeanors each in May 2015.

May 13, 2014:

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.

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