For those in the American West seeking to wrestle states’ rights out the hands of the government, one man says, “This isn’t political; this isn’t economic. This is just who we are.”
Inspired by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s push back against the federal government, a local public official in southern Utah led a protest over the weekend against the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close the 12-mile Recapture Canyon trails to motor vehicles in 2007, after it was discovered an illegal 7-mile trail had been created in the area.
Hikers and horses are still allowed to explore the canyon, which is known for its archaeological ruins such as dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans some 2,000 years ago, but San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman argues that he and the other 3,500 locals should be able to ride motor vehicles such as ATVs on trails in the area.
Environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society and many Native American groups, however, have asked that the canyon “remain closed to motorized use so its valuable natural, cultural and historic resources can be protected.” They also argue that many people only want to be able to ride ATVs on the trails so they can lead tours and profit from the land.
But for many in the state, including Lyman, the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to no longer allow motorized vehicles on the trails represents a battle for power and echoes the push in some Western states to shift states’ rights away from the federal government.
Lyman held a rally at a nearby park on Saturday to demonstrate against the bureau’s oversight of about 90 percent of the town’s public land. About 200 people turned up for the rally, including Aamon Bundy, Cliven Bundy’s son, and several armed supporters, many of whom identified themselves as members of local militia groups.
While Lyman didn’t originally plan on asking anyone to drive an ATV or other motorized vehicle into the restricted areas of the canyon, he appeared pressured to do so after he was booed by supporters, with Aamon Bundy adding that the land belonged to San Juan County residents, not the feds, so they had the right to ride on it.
Ahead of Saturday’s event, Bureau of Land Management officials had notified Lyman that any illegal activity would lead to consequences such as citations and arrests. Lyman had also been urged by Lance Porter, the agency’s local district manager, to “cancel the proposed ride in the closed portion of the canyon,” since “[the bureau] will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who participates in the proposed ride.”
Lyman responded by refusing to cancel the protest. “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.”
He went on to add, “This isn’t political; this isn’t economic. This is just who we are.”
After the rally in the park, about 40 to 50 people drove a mile down Recapture Canyon on the off-limits trails while a dozen sheriff’s’ deputies watched from horseback. Bureau of Land Management officials were also on the scene, but were not wearing uniforms, as per the request of Sheriff Rick Eldredge, who was hoping to avoid a standoff like the one at Bundy Ranch last month.
Although the riders may have damaged the artifacts and dwellings that “tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region” of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, according to Juan Palma, director of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, no one was arrested or cited for breaking the law during the protest, since some protesters were armed and there were children riding on the vehicles — including some without helmets.
However, Palma says the bureau did collect evidence and will continue to investigate the damage done to the canyon and “will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable.”
While it may be surprising to some that a public official started this protest and push back against federal law, a pro-state, anti-federal government attitude appears to be common among local officials in the American West.
Whether it’s to get votes or it’s something they truly believe in, many local and state officials in the American West are often in support of ranchers’ ability to break federal law, and they argue that more power should be given to the states. For example, some ranchers have recently proposed rounding up wild horses in order to preserve the grass for their cattle. But since doing so is illegal under federal law, the ranchers need the support of local lawmakers to push back against the federal oversight of the land.
According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 50 political leaders from nine states recently met in Salt Lake City to discuss how they could take back control of all oil-, timber- and mineral-rich lands away from federal officials. Six states also are reportedly studying whether they can legally reclaim federal land within their borders.
Though the West appears more violent than ever, many of these militia- or terrorist-like tactics have been used for decades by locals who have no desire to abide by federal law.
For one, former Bureau of Land Management Director Patrick Shea says the threat of violence was present in the West when he led the agency from 1997 to 1999. “Whenever I went to southern Utah and some other states, I had security people with me — it wasn’t because of me as an individual but because of the office I headed,” he told the L.A. Times.
“They’re just roaming bands of loners who want to pretend they’re 19th century cowboys,” Shea said. “They scare me. If someone gets drunk or angry and decides to use their weapon, then we have bloodshed. And there’s always a loose nut who’s going to show how much testosterone he has.”
It may sound dramatic to some to refer to some of these protesters as domestic terrorists, but last week before the protest occurred, two men drove up alongside a Bureau of Land Management wrangler. One of the men pointed a gun at the officer, while the other held up a sign that said, “You need to die.”
The identities of the men remain unknown, but bureau officials have decided to strip all identifying markings from trucks in the western portion of the state to better protect their employees.