Justice has been served. Last month two Blanding men received $35,000 in fines for building an illegal ATV trail on BLM land in Recapture Wash just east of Blanding. Their fines represent a multi-year investigation by BLM special agents, but it’s only the beginning of a long process not the end. Much work still needs to be done in San Juan County, Utah. Let’s start with local attitudes.
Whatever possessed these men to think that it was alright to build seven miles of illegal trail straight down Recapture Wash by cutting 300-year-old juniper trees and damaging Ancestral Puebloan sites? To the shame of other law-abiding Utah citizens, these men broke federal laws, including provisions of the Archaeological Resources Protection and the National Historic Preservation acts. They didn’t bother checking with the BLM to get a permit, they just forged ahead moving rocks, installing culverts and even building a small bridge. I know because I walked the route and photographed the damage in November 2007.
Environmental groups came to the defense of the small canyon and for their troubles, Great Old Broads for Wilderness recently received serious threats. The illegal trail had been officially closed by the BLM with signs posted at each end of the route. On the signs someone placed posters with a skull and crossbones and the words “Great Old Broads for Wilderness wanted dead or alive in San Juan County, Utah.”
Now the San Juan County commissioners seek to have the illegally constructed ATV route approved as a county right-of-way by BLM. But not so fast.
First off, there are estimates of over $100,000 in damage to archaeological sites. Who will pay for site restoration? Then there’s the issue of environmental damage to Recapture Wash. A full environmental assessment needs to occur. In the meantime, BLM should maintain the current closure.
County commissioners have repeatedly stated that they want the canyon open for tourists and visitors. As a San Juan County taxpayer, I’m sympathetic. There aren’t a lot of jobs near Blanding and if tourist dollars can help the motels and restaurants in southeastern Utah, sure, why not? But let’s do it right. Let’s have some long-range planning and give serious thought to how to open a remote area and not have it clandestinely pot-hunted.
I’ve hiked Recapture Wash and it’s a beautiful, close-knit canyon with a stream, a few beaver lodges and an intact riparian zone. Ancestral Puebloan habitation sites and ancient stone granaries line both sides of the canyon.
A sunken great kiva resides on a small plateau and it’s easy to see why the Anasazi lived and farmed there. For a quiet day hike it can’t be beat.
Lemonade can come from lemons. Though the illegal ATV trail is both an archaeological and environmental tragedy, the opportunity now exists to do it right.
It’s time for citizen involvement and a shared vision of how this slice of public land can best be managed and interpreted for the common good. Isn’t the historic Mormon heritage of Utah about cooperation and working together?
Perhaps those pioneer values should be reinstituted.
If the San Juan County commissioners really seek increased tourism near Blanding, then why not support a national monument? It’s a small, pristine little canyon that perfectly fits the definition of monument status because of both its natural and cultural resources. Now there’s a goal we can work towards.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org