Seven years ago, I first saw the archaeological damage that had been done to Utah’s Recapture Canyon. The extent of the destruction was stunning.
Somebody, or more likely several people, had created an illegal all-terrain vehicle trail on Bureau of Land Management land. Sections of the trail ran right through 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites, bisecting one prehistoric village the size of a football field — all this in a place that archaeologists have described as a “mini-Mesa Verde.” The scar through Recapture Canyon, just east of Blanding, Utah, is 7 miles long and 4 feet wide.
Now comes the real shocker. San Juan County is requesting a right-of-way for that same trail. And the BLM, instead of responding with outrage, is seeking public comment on what could be a precedent-setting mistake across the American West.
The canyon’s rare cliff dwellings and archaeological sites have been caught in a classic confrontation: A federal agency vs. local residents so keen to boost ATV tourism on public land that they secretly flout federal laws meant to protect our national heritage.
The controversy isn’t new. For almost a decade, San Juan County residents, BLM officials, environmentalists, archaeologists and ATV riders who belong to a group called San Juan Public Entry & Access Rights (SPEAR) have squabbled over the fate of this canyon. The scenario has unfolded with scenes of BLM bungling that are almost painful to watch, combined with both the county and the federal agency’s surprising indifference to federal statutes that protect cultural and natural resources.
In its right-of-way application, for instance, the county declared that a scenic trail featuring ancient sites could draw tourists: “We feel this trail could generate national interest, and we may see many people making the ride.” No reference was made to damage the trail had already caused to some of these ancient sites.
Shouldn’t the BLM care about finding out who made the illegal trail in 2005? Why had a criminal investigation been stalled? It took a few years, but finally, archaeologists, working under contract with the BLM, inventoried Recapture Canyon’s cultural sites and wrote an assessment.
“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.”
Archaeological site damage specialist Martin E. McAllister was more blunt. In his February 2008 report, McAllister explained that the illegal trail caused relatively severe damage to six sites that can never be fully repaired. Whoever built the trail cut trees, installed rock cribbing and drainage pipes, and even a wooden bridge.
The BLM had already spent $49,636 to carry out emergency restoration. Total site damage was estimated at $309,539, with repair costs judged to be $90,734.
The BLM’s criminal investigation was reopened. Six years later, just under the wire for the statute of limitations, on Jan. 12, 2011, Assistant U.S. Attorney John W. Huber filed misdemeanor charges in U.S. District Court against Kenneth Brown, 67, and Dustin Lee Felstead, 38, for having worked on the trail. The defendants received probation and a combined fine of $35,000.
Blanding ATV riders were outraged, and in April 2011, 300 people staged a peaceful protest walk through Recapture Canyon. They also launched a fundraising effort for the “Ken & Dustin Fund.” SPEAR came to the pair’s defense, stating in a brochure: “These men are not extremists or terrorists that we read about every day. They are just ordinary folk. They are just a couple of fellows trying to improve our recreational experience.”
In 2007, I photographed the trail and some of the damage it had caused. Recently, I sought an on-the-ground update. So, with a few friends, I hiked Recapture Canyon. I saw flowing water, an intact riparian system and rare beaver dams. Not far from the deteriorating ATV trail, you could see wilderness characteristics as wild as anywhere in the Southwest. Small cliff dwellings and granaries on both sides of the canyon were visible everywhere, looking like the pockets on a cowboy’s vest. In the stillness of a winter afternoon, not even hawks circled. It felt as though the inhabitants had left recently, not hundreds of years ago.
A major issue is at stake here. Counties can seek rights-of-way on public lands, but allowing an illegally built ATV trail to become an official right-of-way would establish a dangerous precedent across the West. ATV enthusiasts seeking new trails need to start with federal permits, not with picks, shovels and saws.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.