Recapture Canyon and an illegal ATV trail

A Utah county attempts to gain right of way on an illegal ATV trail built on public land.

 

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.

“The Recapture ATV trail survey area shows a long and rich cultural history,” wrote archaeologist Don Keller. “At the present time, actual site features are being directly impacted along the existing ATV track.”

Archaeological site damage specialist Martin E. McAllister was more blunt. In his February 2008 report, McAllister explained that the illegal trail caused relatively severe damage to six sites that can never be fully repaired. Whoever built the trail cut trees, installed rock cribbing and drainage pipes, and even a wooden bridge.

The BLM had already spent $49,636 to carry out emergency restoration. Total site damage was estimated at $309,539, with repair costs judged to be $90,734.

The BLM’s criminal investigation was reopened. Six years later, just under the wire for the statute of limitations, on Jan. 12, 2011, Assistant U.S. Attorney John W. Huber filed misdemeanor charges in U.S. District Court against Kenneth Brown, 67, and Dustin Lee Felstead, 38, for having worked on the trail. The defendants received probation and a combined fine of $35,000.

Blanding ATV riders were outraged, and in April 2011, 300 people staged a peaceful protest walk through Recapture Canyon. They also launched a fundraising effort for the “Ken & Dustin Fund.” SPEAR came to the pair’s defense, stating in a brochure: “These men are not extremists or terrorists that we read about every day. They are just ordinary folk. They are just a couple of fellows trying to improve our recreational experience.”

In 2007, I photographed the trail and some of the damage it had caused. Recently, I sought an on-the-ground update. So, with a few friends, I hiked Recapture Canyon. I saw flowing water, an intact riparian system and rare beaver dams. Not far from the deteriorating ATV trail, you could see wilderness characteristics as wild as anywhere in the Southwest. Small cliff dwellings and granaries on both sides of the canyon were visible everywhere, looking like the pockets on a cowboy’s vest. In the stillness of a winter afternoon, not even hawks circled. It felt as though the inhabitants had left recently, not hundreds of years ago.

A major issue is at stake here. Counties can seek rights of way on public lands, but allowing an illegally built ATV trail to become an official right of way would establish a dangerous precedent across the West. ATV enthusiasts seeking new trails need to start with federal permits, not with picks, shovels and saws.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.