Recapture Canyon

An illegal ATV trail in ‘mini-Mesa Verde’ stirs up cloud of controversy along the border

In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking comments on what could be a precedent-setting mistake.

In 2005, Blanding residents illegally constructed a seven-mile-long, 4-foot-wide, all-terrain-vehicle trail in Recapture Canyon, damaging archaeological sites. 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 classic confrontation between local residents who want to boost ATV tourism and federal laws that protect our national 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. The scenario has unfolded with almost laughable BLM bungling and a surprising indifference to federal statuets protecting cultural and natural resources.

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Recognizing the potential economic benefit of a prized ATV trail, San Juan County, on March 30, 2006, 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.

The controversy over the ATV trail grew in subsequent years, reaching beyond Monticello and Blanding to Salt Lake City and the state BLM office to the Department of the Interior and to the office of the solicitor general. One thread even stretches to Durango, where Great Old Broads for Wilderness helped publicize the illegal trail, only to be threatened.

In September 2007, once the BLM understood the damage to the canyon’s cultural sites, the agency put up temporary closure signs prohibiting motorized access. In response, someone put up signs with a skull and crossbones. The signs stated: “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE: Members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness are not allowed in San Juan County Utah by order of the San Juan Sheriff Office and the Monticello BLM Office.”

Tensions escalated.

Juan Palma, state director for the BLM in Utah, reacted emphatically: “These posters are a cowardly act by an unknown group or individual to intimidate a legitimate conservation organization that is a civil proponent for the management of public lands in Southeast Utah. The notices have been collected by a BLM law-enforcement officer as evidence of a threat.”

Well, not all of the notices. Members of Great Old Broads kept a few of the photocopied pages and, in their irrepressible manner, proudly made the skull, crossbones and threat into a collectible T-shirt.

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Who made the illegal trail and why had a criminal investigation been stalled for years? Rumors persisted that SPEAR volunteers had built the trail and San Juan County had assisted by providing scrap metal for an ATV bridge or stile.

Finally, 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, jacal or mud-and-stick woven walls, 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 small, 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 valuable 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.

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The BLM had to act. The criminal investigation resumed. Volunteers had built the trail in 2005 by cutting trees, moving stones, installing rock cribbing and drainage pipes, and even building a wooden bridge.

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. Sentencing came 10 days later by federal Magistrate Samuel Alba with defendants receiving probation and a combined $35,000 fine.

Shortly after the sentencing, The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized against the illegal trail.

“If the Bureau of Land Management allows San Juan County to legitimize an illegal all-terrain-vehicle trail in Recapture Canyon, it might as well give up even a pretense of enforcing protections for scenic and archaeological treasures in other remote areas,” the paper said.

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 ordinary folk. They are our friends, our neighbors. They are just a couple of fellows trying to improve our recreational experience.”

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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.

gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.