Recently, some anti-wilderness advocates in San Juan County, Utah, decided that freedom of speech wasn't good enough for them. They felt so desperate to be heard that they turned to vandalism and threats to amplify their voices.
The target of this rage? A group of elderly women. That group is called Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and is primarily composed of "old and gray" women, though younger women and men are welcome to join the group. Its mission is to encourage elders to advocate and educate on behalf of the environment - in particular, our public lands - and to hike on them whenever possible.
Because of their advocacy for wilderness, greater protection for public lands and closing unauthorized ATV trails, the Broads have become controversial in some rural Western areas. When their opponents choose to express their disapproval through harassment and fear tactics, however, they act as cowards.
During the last weekend in September, many members of the Broads gathered for one of their biannual multiday car campouts, a few miles outside the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. At these events, called "Broadwalks," the group brings in speakers who also lead hikes and discuss environmental issues in that area.
On the evening of Sept. 28, a banner outside the group's campsite was vandalized. On the night of Sept. 29, members received threatening messages and were also locked into their campsite, an action that put their safety at risk.
The Broads were camping on private property, the Nature Conservancy's Dugout Ranch, surrounded by Bureau of Land Management land. In order to get to the remote campsite, participants had to turn off the main county road, drive down another road, and then go through a private gate and into the camp. The Broads had hung their vinyl banner on the gate to let members know where to turn. Sometime in the night, it was slashed and spray-painted. Mostly, the group took all this in stride, making jokes about San Juan County residents picking on a bunch of grandmothers and "little old ladies."
On Sunday morning, however, a member of the group who awoke early to leave the campsite and return to work, found the exit gate padlocked shut and an old-hag Halloween mask, doused in fake blood, hanging in effigy. Underneath the mask was a milk jug with the inked threat: "Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance."
Veronica Egan, the organizations' executive director, was forced to hike about a mile to the ranch house and find an employee with bolt cutters who could come cut the chain.
Closing off vehicle access out of a campsite is a threat to the safety of any group. When it happens to a group of older women, the risk is even greater.
"The last Broadwalk we were on, we had two people that went to the hospital," says Rose Chilcoat, associate director at the organization.
This is not the first time residents of San Juan County have threatened the Broads. In 2010, when the group was out with land managers examining an illegally created trail in Recapture Watch, they encountered signs bearing a skull and crossbones that read: "Wanted dead or alive: Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Great Old Broads not allowed in San Juan County by order of BLM and the Sheriff's office."
A day before their September campout, a local weekly in Blanding, the Blue Mountain Panorama, ran a two-page screed against the group. In the piece, members of the local ATV group were told where the group was camping and encouraged to take "a field trip to the GOB's camp. ... Perhaps an ATV parade (on existing trails near their campsite)...might be appropriate." The piece concludes "maybe we should keep an eye on them while they're here. ..."
The piece lacks a byline, and attempts to contact the paper have gone unanswered. What is clear is the article's inflammatory tone. Neil and Becky Joslin, who publish the paper, have some explaining to do.
The Great Old Broads is not the only group experiencing hatred in San Juan County. Federal land managers in charge of enforcing policies on public land have also experienced harassment from locals. While citizens of San Juan County are more than welcome to disagree with any of the positions taken by the Great Old Broads - it's a free country, after all - the manner in which they show their disproval is shameful and should stop.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the magazine's online editor, based in Paonia.