A protest in Utah’s San Juan County ended without violence on Saturday. But the conflict between a federal government agency and its critics is expected to continue.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized the ride into Recapture Canyon, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management banned motorized vehicles 7 years ago. Lyman urged protesters at a morning rally on Saturday to steer clear of the closed areas because of the risk to the archaeology and to their reputations.
“This is being tried today in the court of public opinion,” he told the crowd of around 300. “It’s being tried by the media, and I think we’re gonna do more damage. I think we’ll do more damage to the cattle grazers. I think we’ll do more damage to the city of Blanding. I think we’ll do more damage by going on the illegal trail today. And that’s my feeling.
“It’s not illegal,” one man called out.
“Oh, you’re right,” Lyman responded. “I agree with you. Mispoke. It’s not illegal.”
But later the county commissioner did ride into the closed area along with more than 60 other ATV drivers.
Megan Crandall, spokeswoman for the Utah BLM, says protestors who rode into the canyon on Saturday will face the consequences.
“The BLM is continuing to investigate, and we plan to seek all of the available and appropriate penalties through legal redress,” she said. “So, we’ll work through the legal system.”
The area has been under study for years because it contains evidence of human life 2,000 years ago and Native American burial grounds.
Sheriff’s deputies on foot and horseback kept order, but didn’t cite or arrest protesters. Plain-clothes BLM officers observed the ride.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said it was up to BLM to uphold its laws. But out-of-state militia members had shown up, and Eldredge said the deputies were on hand to deal with any potential violence.
“We’re here to keep the peace,” he said astride his horse, Thelma Lou, to “make sure that everybody has the opportunity to express their First Amendment right and just make sure that there’s no clashes between opposing opinions.”
Blanding resident Stefnee Turk, founder of a group called the San Juan Alliance, praised the protestors for standing up for freedoms that go far beyond Recapture Canyon.
“It’s a Big Government problem in my eyes,” she said, counting the ATV’s that buzzed by, her tally topping 55. Government’s too powerful. They want to control too much of what we are doing.”
BLM officials say more than 2,800 miles of off-road trails are nearby or within driving distance of Recapture Canyon.