This eye-blink of a town in the state’s scenic southeastern corner bills itself as the “Gateway to Adventure.” But this weekend it promises to be more like a launchpad for civil unrest.
A band of angry citizens plans to ride all-terrain vehicles onto closed-off, federally managed public land Saturday in protest against the federal Bureau of Land Management, which many say has unfairly closed off a prized area, cheating residents of outdoor recreation.
The ride, organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, is a gambit to assert county sovereignty over Recapture Canyon, known for its archaeological ruins, that BLM officials say has been jeopardized from overuse. The canyon was closed to motor vehicles in 2007, the agency said, after two men forged an illegal seven-mile trail. Hikers and those on horseback are still allowed there.
Lyman and his supporters want the BLM to act more quickly on a years-old request for a public right-of-way through the area. “You can’t just arbitrarily shut down a road in San Juan County,” he said. “If you can do that and get away with it, what else can you do?”
The revolt has received national attention, coming at the heels of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s successful standoff last month against the BLM that suggests a rising battle across the West over states’ rights on federally managed public lands. Tensions rose in Utah this week after two men pointed a gun at a BLM employee on a highway.
The Blanding protest is being spearheaded not by any citizen rancher like Bundy, but rather by an outspoken local public official — a sign of the growing frustrations in a rural county composed of nearly 90% public lands managed by the BLM. As a result, locals say, they have long been shut out of land-use decisions that that intimately affect their lives and economy.
Many say the Nevada incident and the Blanding protest are both reminiscent of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which communities across the West decried what they called the overreaching power of the federal government.
In recent years, conservative lawmakers in several Western states have renewed the call for greater state and local control of federal lands — many describing the federal government as an occupying force.
Lyman says he has a right to represent his local constituency against outside agitators, including the federal government. And he enjoys widespread support here.
“I think more than 80% of the people in this town stand behind his cause,” said 33-year resident Jill Bayles, a retired nurse who said she misses driving her ATV in Recapture Canyon.
“I won’t be at the protest because my back hurts, but if it didn’t, I’d be out there on my ATV, leading the charge,” she said. “People here are just tired of the Park Service and BLM telling us what to do.”
Environmental groups have spoken out in support of the BLM, saying that fragile Recapture Canyon must be protected. In a statement issued Friday, the Wilderness Society called for the area “to remain closed to motorized use so its valuable natural, cultural and historic resources can be protected.”
This week, BLM officials notified Lyman that any illegal foray in the area would bring consequences such as citations and arrest. “I strongly urge you to cancel the proposed ride in the closed portion of the canyon,” Lance Porter, the agency’s local district manager in Moab, wrote in a hand-delivered letter. “BLM will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who participates in the proposed ride.”
Lyman quickly responded with a letter saying that the ride was still on and that local resentment of federal officials here had not cooled: “I do not consider my protest, or the protest of those who choose to participate on May 10, to be in violation of the law.”
Many across the West are watching to see what happens in Recapture Canyon.
Earlier this week, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts brandished a handgun at a BLM worker driving an agency vehicle, holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.” BLM workers have since been advised to take precautions such as not wearing their uniforms, and the agency issued a statement saying threats against its employees “will not be tolerated.”
The protest comes just a month after Bundy successfully took on the BLM over his claims to graze hundreds of cattle on public land without paying fees. In that incident, the federal government backed down after raiding the rancher’s land — pushed back by the arrival of hundreds of so-called citizen soldiers, many armed with semiautomatic weapons.
Officials said the retreat came after they feared bloodshed.
Lyman’s protest was planned long before the Bundy incident, but now militia who rallied to help Bundy are expected to converge in this town of 3,500 residents settled a century ago by Mormon missionaries.
In recent days, many militia members have left camps near the Bundy ranch 80 miles north of Las Vegas to make the nearly 500-mile drive to Blanding.
“There aren’t as many men here as there were a few days ago,” Bundy’s wife, Carol, told The Times. “Many of them have gone up to Utah.’
Asked whether they would be armed, she said, “They’re militia! Of course they’re carrying their weapons.”
On Friday, Stephen Dean, a 46-year-old Salt Lake City artist and self-proclaimed militiaman, sat in his van at a park where a protest rally was scheduled for the evening. “I drove up from the Bundy ranch today to show my support for local people here for access to public lands,” he said, an American flag flying from his radio antenna.
He said he was a member of a Utah militia group known as the People’s United Mobile Armed Services. “Cliven told me there was another cause up here,” he said. “I’m from Utah, so this is important to me.”
On the militia group’s Facebook page, Dean posted a message that said, “This could be the next big story as the ATV loving locals team with Militia groups to recapture Recapture Canyon.”
He added: “The pro-ATV dude at the grocery store said ‘it could get ugly really fast.’” He closed the post with, “Arm yourselves!”
Later that night, he set up a microphone and tried to solicit funds from 75 people who had arrived to hear Lyman speak.
When Lyman arrived, he was perturbed that his rally had been commandeered by a militia he didn’t invite. “This is my crowd,” he told a reporter. “But I don’t just want to get up and push them out of the way.”
Later, he walked up to the microphone and asked Dean: “Who are you, anyway?”
He then told the crowd that he and other protesters planned to ride their ATVs onto federal land in the morning. “This isn’t political; this isn’t economic. This is just who we are,” he said to applause.
“If you make a rule that I have to lick your boots, I’m just not going to do that,” he added. “I’ve tried to work with these federal people and have spent a lot of time on my knees. But sometimes you just have to stand up for yourselves.”
Meanwhile, officials have urged calm.
“I hope we can continue to use civil dialogue in matter because nobody wants to see people get hurt,” Kathleen Clarke, who was a BLM director from 2001 to 2006, told The Times. “A big show of force and a showdown at the OK Corral is just not helpful. We don’t want that kind of standoff.”
She added: “it’s never a good thing when you have one group of armed Americans lined up against another.”