Dozens of people, including supporters and two sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, rode ATVs and motorcycles into a protected Utah canyon on Saturday in defiance of federal rules governing the use of Western lands.
The illicit motorcade into Recapture Canyon, in Utah’s Southern San Juan County, was described by the trail riders — some wearing sidearms — as a protest against overreach by the federal government and part of efforts to win more local say over property controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
It was immediately condemned by the BLM’s state director in Utah, who told reporters the riders' two-mile round trip may have damaged 2,000-year-old pueblo artifacts and dwellings.
No arrests or violence were reported. And it hadn’t even been certain earlier in the day whether the canyon ride would happen, until a debate broke out among the participants about how far to take their protest.
The gathering started with about 200 people at a park in the town of Blanding, Utah. There, a local official who organized the rally, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, called for the federal government to cede some control of Recapture Canyon.
He also asked his fellow protestors to consider confining their demonstration to the park.
“We’ve made our protest by gathering right here,” Lyman said, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I feel no moral hesitancy to cross over into the federally controlled area, but the last thing I want to see is violence. Recapture Canyon is not about conflict.”
In the crowd were Ryan and Aamon Bundy, sons of the Nevada rancher whose long-running feud with the BLM over grazing fees almost turned bloody in April.
"This is where it's happening Saturday," Bundy backer Ryan Payne of Montana
told the Las Vegas Sun. "This is a continuation of the Bundy affair."
It was Aamon Bundy — who has said he was shot with a stun gun by federal agents in the April standoff at his family ranch— who stepped forward to urge riders onward, according to the Times.
"That’s why we came here," he said.
He accused Lyman of speaking "the language of weakness." An angry Lyman, as if to prove otherwise, then told the group to prepare for the ride. About 40 to 50 people on ATVs and motorcycles made the two-mile trek to the canyon.
BLM agents were said by local authorities to be in the year but deliberately keeping a low profile. The riders were greeted instead by about a dozen local sheriff’s deputies on horseback.
"We are here to keep the peace and safeguard the constitutional rights of everybody," San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge told the Salt Lake Tribune
. "We don’t want to see clashes between citizens and clashes between BLM and militia. This is not going to be Bunkerville."
Bunkerville, Nevada, was the site of the April standoff between federal agents attempting to confiscate Cliven Bundy's cattle and armed Bundy supporters. That confrontation ended with federal agents pulling back to avoid a potential shootout.
But the dispute over federal land management hasn't subsided. Saturday's protest in Utah "attracted out-of-state activists eager to denounce federal authority over public lands," the Tribune reported. "Some came decked in military camouflage and sidearms slung on their thighs. Militia men approached by The Tribune declined to be interviewed."
Recapture Canyon sits about 40 miles northwest of Four Corners, the meeting point of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The canyon contains structures and objects left behind by Native Americans who lived in the area until 800 years ago.
Supporters of the ban on motorized traffic say it's there to preserve those artifacts for all visitors to enjoy.
"Those ancient sites are the equivalent to churches," said Mark Maryboy, a former Navajo Nation Council delegate. "It's very disappointing that they have no respect for Native American culture."
Motorized access to Recapture Canyon and other wilderness areas has long been a source of tension. ATV riders rode another off-limits trail in 2009 in a protest, although no charges were filed.
The federal government owns two-thirds of Utah's land, and the state's Republican-dominated Legislature passed a law in 2012 demanding Utah be given control of those lands before 2015, excluding national parks. Lyman, the San Juan County official, believes it's possible to reopen the canyon to ATVs while preserving the artifacts.
But Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities disagrees, pointing out that ATV riders blew their chance when authorities discovered two men used picks and shovels to create an off-road recreational vehicle trail in the canyon prior to the 2007 ban.
The BLM says that more than 2,800 miles of trails are open to ATVs on public lands within a short drive of Blanding.
The BLM's Utah State Director, Juan Palma, issued a statement saying the riders on Saturday could eventually face legal consequences: "As always, our first and most important priority is the safety of the public and our employees, and our actions today reflect that. The BLM was in Recapture Canyon today collecting evidence and will continue to investigate. The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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