Utah’s Recapture Canyon focus of a local-federal road fight
In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking comments on what could be a precedent-setting mistake.
In 2005, someone illegally constructed a 7-mile-long, 4-foot-wide, all-terrain-vehicle trail in Recapture Canyon. Now San Juan County is seeking a right of way for that same trail.
In a pristine canyon considered a “mini-Mesa Verde,” rare cliff dwellings and archaeological sites are caught in a confrontation between locals who want to boost ATV tourism and federal laws that protect our heritage.
For almost a decade, San Juan County residents, BLM officials, environmentalists, archaeologists and ATV riders with San Juan Public Entry & Access Rights, or SPEAR, have squabbled over the fate of this 12-mile canyon east of Blanding.
Recognizing the potential economic benefit of a prized ATV trail, on March 30, 2006, San Juan County filed for a formal right of way. The application said a scenic trail featuring ancient sites could become a source of income for the area. “We feel this trail could generate national interest, and we may see many people making the ride,” the application said.
Archaeologists, working under contract with the BLM, inventoried Recapture Canyon’s cultural sites and assessed the damage. More than 30 sites were determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Specialists found artifact scatters, granaries, rock alignments, cliff dwellings and multiroom masonry unit pueblos.
“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 in several cases.”
Recapture Canyon represents almost the entire prehistory of the Southwest, from isolated Basketmaker II Pueblo I sites dating from 750 to 950 A.D. to carefully designed Pueblo III sites built from 900 to 1150 A.D. One site is as large as a football field and may include a Great House.
Keller concluded that the canyon’s archaeological resources could become a National Register Historic District. But, he said, “The existing ATV track development can be expected to hasten and increase indirect impacts to cultural resources.”
Archaeological site-damage specialist Martin E. McAllister was more blunt.
In his Feb. 4, 2008, report, McAllister said that the illegal trail caused relatively severe damage to six sites that can never be fully repaired. In carrying out emergency restoration, the BLM already had spent $49,636.50. Total site damage was estimated at $309,539.75, with repair costs judged to be $90,734.27.
People built the trail in 2005 by cutting trees, moving stones, installing rock cribbing and drainage pipes, and building a wooden bridge.
On Jan. 12, 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed misdemeanor charges in federal court against Kenneth Brown, 67, and Dustin Lee Felstead, 38. Sentencing came 10 days later, with defendants receiving probation and a combined $35,000 fine.
But Blanding ATV riders were outraged.
In April 2011, 300 people staged a peaceful protest walk through Recapture Canyon. They also launched a major fundraising effort for the “Ken & Dustin Fund.”
SPEAR came to the pair’s defense, too, stating in a brochure: “These men are not extremists or terrorists that we read about every day ... They are just a couple of fellows trying to improve our recreational experience.”
In 2007, I photographed the trail and the damage it caused. Last month, I sought an on-the-ground update. So, in late December, with a few friends, I took a hike down Recapture Canyon. I saw flowing water, an intact riparian system, rare beaver dams and, off the deteriorating ATV trail, I found land with wilderness characteristics as wild as anywhere in the Southwest. Small cliff dwellings and granaries on both sides of the canyon were seen everywhere like pockets on a cowboy’s vest. In the stillness of a winter afternoon not even hawks circled. I felt alone in an intact ecosystem surrounded by the evidence of hundreds of years of human habitation.
Now the fate of this quiet canyon, so hotly contested, is in the public’s hands. San Juan County is seeking 14.25 miles of ATV trail and three trailheads or staging areas for ATVs.
The BLM is accepting public comment about the proposed right of way until Jan. 26.
A major county-federal issue is at stake here. Yes, counties can seek rights of way on public lands. That option is in the Federal Land Policy Management Act, inspired in part by the late Congressman Wayne Aspinall from Palisade.
But the ease with which counties can apply for and receive rights of way does not address cultural and resource protection along a right of way which counties are not prepared to safeguard.
ATV tourism will continue and it may produce economic benefits, but in the Southwest, ATV access may also accelerate resource damage and increase illegal artifact hunting. New protections must be put into place before authorizing rights of way on archaeologically rich public lands.
Granting an ATV right of way in remote Recapture Canyon for a trail system illegally built sends the wrong message. ATV enthusiasts seeking public access need to start with federal permits, not with picks, shovels and saws.