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July 02, 2014 News » Cover Story

Wild Utah 

The fight over lands in Southern Utah is shaping up to be the next Sagebrush Rebellion

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At a May 10 rally in Centennial Park in the Southern Utah town of Blanding, Steve Curry—a Vietnam veteran from Montrose, Colo.—took to the podium on behalf of the Citizens Action Network.

“We took Nevada back, and now we are here to take back Utah,” he said. “We need to make this an offensive goal. And if the BLM draws guns on you, you draw guns on them.”

What had started as a local protest in a small town had quickly grown, attracting a number of outside supporters and conservative militant groups, some of them fresh from Bunkerville, Nev., where they had just engaged in an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in defense of Cliven Bundy, the now-famous rancher who, for the past 20 years, has refused to pay fees for grazing on public lands.

Among the 300 or so people assembled in Centennial Park was Cliven Bundy’s son Ryan, who addressed the crowd while waving a pocket Constitution, which, he said, guarantees states’ rights over the federal government’s. He later passed out autographed copies.

Others in attendance included armed members of the Montana Militia, the Citizens Action Network (CAN) and the Save America Foundation (SAF). The SAF had posted an “urgent call to all patriots” on its website, with a message from Cliven Bundy’s wife, Carol: “Please make the trip to Blanding. We need to keep sending the message loud and clear wherever the BLM is illegally asserting its power.”

The flag-waving, fiercely patriotic members of SAF and CAN claim the U.S. Constitution as their sole guiding force. In spite of their patriotism, they have a strong distrust of the federal government, which, they say, does not follow the Constitution. For them, San Juan County is another front in the larger war against the federal government, and they were at the rally that day to lend their strength.

click to enlarge San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman listens as a speaker addresses the crowd at the ATV rally - ERIC TRENBEATH
  • San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman listens as a speaker addresses the crowd at the ATV rally

But it wasn’t really their fight. The issues in Southern Utah stretch further and run deeper than being simply the latest headline-grabbing example of anti-federal feelings in the West. San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman had organized the rally as a lead-up to an illegal ATV ride into a closed section of the archaeologically rich Recapture Canyon. Lyman says the event was a protest against an “overreaching federal government,” but it was also just the latest skirmish in a long, bitter battle over Utah’s land.

Phil Lyman and many other San Juan County residents are descendants of the Hole in the Rock pioneers, who in 1879 staged an impossible journey through the rugged heart of Southern Utah to settle the town of Bluff along the banks of the San Juan River. Fiercely independent and loyal to none but the leadership of the LDS Church, they laid claim to this remote chunk of land, and they and their descendants have resisted outside influence, particularly from the federal government, ever since.

The majority of land in Utah falls under the public domain. Nearly 70 percent—more than 35 million acres—is federally managed, and most of this falls under the jurisdiction of the BLM. Other federally managed lands include national forests, parks and monuments. In San Juan County, the ratio of federally managed lands, including Recapture Canyon, approaches 90 percent.

Surrounded by hundreds of square miles of federally managed public land, many rural residents have been frustrated for generations by what they believe is excessive—even unconstitutional—federal control over public land, and are bent on wresting control from the feds and putting it into the hands of state and local governments.

And the battle looks to only be increasing in intensity, as a recent oil boom in Southern Utah near Moab has some fearing for the unique red-rock landscape and others saying “drill, drill, drill.”


Though many people first heard of Recapture Canyon in the context of the ATV ride, it has figured into the lives of area residents for about 2,000 years.

A tributary of the San Juan River, the canyon runs north to south and roughly parallels U.S. Highway 191. It’s mostly invisible beneath the flat expanse of land that stretches eastward to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and south into the towers and mesas of the Navajo Nation and the Four Corners region. Relatively shallow by canyon-country standards, the bottom is well-watered and heavily vegetated. Sandstone cliffs house numerous dwellings, remnants of ancient Puebloan culture.

The canyon has served as a natural thoroughfare for Native Americans, early white settlers, sheepherders, cattleman, prospectors and outlaws. Phil Lyman’s grandfather, Walter Lyman, discovered the town site for Blanding by riding up through Recapture Canyon from Bluff.

click to enlarge Ryan Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, rides his ATV through Recapture Canyon - ERIC TRENBEATH
  • Ryan Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, rides his ATV through Recapture Canyon

Whether Recapture Canyon was ever actually officially open to motor vehicles remains unclear. San Juan County’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps, which document every road, two track and trail in the county, don’t show a motorized route through Recapture Canyon. A service road for a pipeline from the Recapture Dam project goes down into the canyon approximately two miles. After that, it turns into a vague trail that has been in use since ancient times. Shortly after the road becomes a trail, cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites are abundant.

The BLM closed the canyon seven years ago after members of the environmental group Great Old Broads for Wilderness alerted the federal agency to destruction in the canyon.

Members of the group—which was started in 1989 by older “lady hikers who wanted to refute Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s notion that wilderness is inaccessible to elders,” according to its website, and has now expanded to a national group made up of women and men—documented damage, including excavation done with picks and shovels, and took it to the BLM in 2006.

The BLM determined that the canyon’s archaeological resources, including ancient burial grounds and the Puebloan ruins, were being damaged by off-road vehicle use and the construction of an illegal trail, an act for which two men pleaded guilty in court. A BLM damage assessment said the constructed route crossed through numerous cultural sites and also noted evidence of recent “pot-hunting”—excavations made for the purpose of looting ancient artifacts—at the Recapture Great House site. Cost for restoration was estimated to be $300,000.

In 2007, the BLM initiated an emergency closure of the canyon, which was not to be lifted until damage was repaired or mitigated. Though the closure had the support of then-county commissioner Lynn Stevens, Lyman says the BLM illegally closed an existing route in violation of the Federal Land Policy & Management Act.

The BLM used the Code of Federal Regulations to perform a temporary closure under the premise that new trail construction was damaging archeology. The code states that “A closure or restriction order should be considered only after other management strategies and alternatives have been explored including cooperative efforts with local governments and organizations,” and that “temporary closures or restrictions must be 24 months or less in duration.”

That’s the part that really irks Lyman. He says the county has been working with the BLM for years to designate a suitable route through Recapture Canyon. Talks with the BLM started in 2005, he says, and in 2006, the county filed an application for a Title V Right of Way (ROW).

“Not to gain access,” he says. “We already had it. But to secure it for the community who had determined to start promoting the trail.”

Lyman says that the BLM condoned trail maintenance on the project, and it was the ROW process that prompted them to start taking input from outside sources.

“The BLM had every opportunity to remedy their concerns with reroutes or signage, yet they ignored the local interests in favor of loud voices from external environmental groups, like the Great Old Broads for Wilderness,” he says.

Lyman is by no means the only person who’s not a fan of the Great Old Broads.

In 2010, signs surfaced in and around the canyon that said, “Wanted, Dead or Alive, Great Old Broads for Wilderness,” with an image of a skull and crossbones. And members of the group say that in 2012, at one of their biannual campouts held on private land owned by the nature conservancy, they awoke to find themselves padlocked in the compound. A hag mask, drenched in fake blood, was hanging on the fence, with an attached note that read, “Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance.”

Rose Chilcoat, associate director of Great Old Broads, says they and other environmental-activist groups had planned on attending the protest ride at Recapture Canyon—some as observers, and some as counter-protestors. But when word got out that armed militia were going to be present, they called it off.

“In my mind, threatening law enforcement officers isn’t civil disobedience, it’s anarchy, and these guys are domestic terrorists,” Chilcoat says.

Lyman doesn’t see it that way. He’s proud of the tradition San Juan County commissioners have established in standing up against the BLM, most notably commissioner Calvin Black, who was immortalized as the fictional character Bishop Love in Edward Abbey’s seminal novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975.

In Abbey’s book, a band of nature-loving misfits decide to fight back against the destruction of wilderness by engaging in various forms of eco-sabotage. The story takes place almost entirely in San Juan County, and Bishop Love, a developer who pushes industrialization, mining, and building roads, is the monkey-wrenchers’ arch nemesis.

The real-life Black also embodied those principles, and he took an aggressive stance against anyone, in particular the BLM, who advocated for wilderness, road closures, or any sort of protective designation of the public lands within San Juan County. Minutes from a 1979 open house hosted by the BLM on the topic of wilderness designation show an openly hostile Black.

“We’ve had enough of you guys telling us what to do,” Black is quoted as saying. “I’m not a violent man, but I’m getting to the point where I’ll blow up bridges, ruins, and vehicles. We’re going to start a revolution. We’re going to get back our lands. You better watch your vehicles. You had better start going out in twos and threes, because we’re going to take care of you BLMers.”

When the BLM employee giving the presentation asked if Black was threatening him, Black responded, “I’m not threatening you, I’m promising you.”


In neighboring Grand County, home to the recreation capital of Moab, a recent boom in oil and gas has awakened the spirit of new Moab sagebrush rebels.

Open access and resource development are the guiding land-management principles of many longtime Southern Utah residents, which puts them at odds with environmentalists and others who believe in preserving Utah’s scenic landscape—for its own sake, and for the economic benefits from Utah’s tourism industry.

click to enlarge Grand County commissioner Ray Tibbetts at a 1979 protest against BLM road closures - COURTESY RAY TIBBETTS
  • Grand County commissioner Ray Tibbetts at a 1979 protest against BLM road closures

Ray Tibbetts, a resident of Moab since the early 1940s, is something of a folk hero to Moabites who resent the intrusion of the federal government. As a Grand County commissioner in the 1970s, Tibbetts helped organize a protest similar to Lyman’s.

The BLM, the 82-year-old says, “were trying to close a bunch of roads up on Sand Flats. So we got some people together and went up there to stage a protest.” The protest ended with a bulldozer pushing a road into the upper fork of what is now known as Negro Bill Canyon.

“I sure wish I had been down there [in Recapture Canyon] with Phil,” Tibbetts says. “It’s important to make a stand.”

A staunch opponent of wilderness protection, Tibbetts was nevertheless involved in the creation of what is now Canyonlands National Park, and he recognizes the value of tourism to Grand County.

“But enough is enough,” he says. “We’ve got to be able to develop our resources. There’s a real good oil field up there on Big Flat between the two rivers, and we’ve got to see something come of it.”

Big Flat is an area on Island in the Sky Mesa, perched between the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. The southern end of Big Flat borders Canyonlands National Park. Visitors approaching Canyonlands, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park, now see a host of new oil wells springing up, as well as a recently constructed pipeline for natural gas. Other plans for the area include a potash mine on the rim of Labyrinth Canyon above the Green River.

A coalition of citizens, businesses, environmental groups and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) have proposed the creation of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. In a letter to President Obama, who could create such a monument by executive order under the Antiquities Act, the OIA wrote that the creation of a national monument is necessary because current federal-management plans “inappropriately open scenic and undeveloped land to drilling and mining and fail to address exploding off-road vehicle use that is damaging riparian areas, cultural sites, soils and solitude.”

Nothing makes a sagebrush rebel’s blood boil more than the threat of a national monument being created by executive order. They view this as the ultimate overreach of a federal government completely out of touch with locals’ needs.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, as well as those whose livelihoods depend on Moab’s recreation economy, see the creation of Greater Canyonlands National Monument as a way to protect a landscape that would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder. They say that extractive industries and resource development will bring only short-term economic gains followed by an inevitable bust.

And the landscape for which Utah is famous, which is also becoming an increasingly large portion of the state’s economy, will be forever marred.


Grand County is nothing if not polarized. Unlike in San Juan and other rural counties in Southern Utah, many Grand County residents favor stronger protection for the public land, making the fight closer to neighbor vs. neighbor than locals vs. feds.

In 2013, Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop launched the Utah Public Lands Initiative in hopes of bringing an end to the public-lands debate by striking a compromise between all interested parties. In the “bottom-up” process, local communities and other interested stakeholders submit their recommendations for land-use designation. Bishop will then take the recommendations that have been hammered out by all stakeholders and package them into a bill that he will introduce to Congress.

The Grand County Council received 190 handwritten letters (e-mailed comments were not accepted) during the public-comment period. Ninety percent of the letters favored greater protection for the public lands in Grand County.

Three land-use maps were unveiled at an April 23 public meeting, which was attended by 350 people. The alternatives contained a range of land-use designations, with Alternative 1 leaving the most area open for resource development, and Alternative 3 setting aside larger areas for wilderness designation and National Recreation Areas. Alternative 2 sat in the middle.

All of the maps allowed for a controversial “energy corridor”—basically, a road—through the Book Cliffs to transport oil and gas to a proposed refinery near Green River. All of the alternatives also called for the repeal of the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the executive power to declare an area such as Greater Canyonlands as a protected national monument.

After the maps were explained, 47 people addressed the council: 25 in favor of greater protection for the land than was offered by any of the alternatives, 15 arguing for looser restrictions on development, and seven recommending striking a balance.

Tibbetts gave an impassioned speech in which he recommended that they “drill, drill, drill.”

Following that meeting, the council held another comment period, during which it received close to 300 letters, about equally divided between providing greater protection for the land and allowing more development.

A subsequent workshop was designed to incorporate public feedback and to hammer out a final recommendation from the three alternatives. But it soon became clear that they were still far from a decision that would be acceptable to all members of the council, let alone residents of the county.

Jim Nyland, a first-term council member and retired Grand County sheriff, made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that he’d made up his mind. “There is an element out there that wants to halt all resource development,” he said. “I am not going to support any more wilderness.”

Four other members of the seven-person council affirmed their opposition to any more wilderness designation or the expansion of any National Recreation Areas.

“We need to get the federal government out of here,” councilwoman Pat Holyoak said.

But councilwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said she couldn’t support any of the alternatives. “There is something wrong with this process when there are three plans that don’t encompass what a lot of the people in this community want,” she said.

She also expressed concern that none of the alternatives left out the controversial Book Cliffs road or retained the Antiquities Act.

Chris Baird, former county councilman and current director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, says that although Alternative 3 was ostensibly tilted toward the environmental community, it contained very little of the environmentalists’ actual wish list. Of specific concern to Baird was the lack of consideration for wilderness designation in the La Sal Mountains, or any protection for the Grand County watershed.

In addition to the controversial Book Cliffs road, and the exclusion of the Antiquities Act, Alternative 3 does not set aside enough land for wilderness protection to garner support from environmental groups. Another specific area of concern is a parcel of oil & gas leases adjacent to the eastern boundary of Arches National Park. If developed, oil & gas wells would be visible from many places in the park, including from the world-famous Delicate Arch.

Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling, has been working on the Bishop Lands Initiative both as a representative for the International Mountain Biking Association and the Outdoor Industry Association. She says that people come to Moab to see and recreate in a relatively untouched landscape, and that oil & gas development is threatening the area’s recreation economy.

“There is a huge economic value to land left in its natural state,” she says, citing Utah’s $6 billion tourist economy as proof.

The council held three more workshops in an attempt to hammer out a proposal that they can submit to Bishop, to no result. The majority of the council still supports the proposal that leaves the most area open to oil & gas development. But even if the council votes along with its majority, a plan that lacks broad support of community stakeholders is generally viewed to be doomed as part of Bishop’s larger package.

The council has tabled the discussion until mid-July.


During the May 10 Recapture Rally, as calls for violence against the BLM and environmental activists increased, Lyman began to reconsider his plan. He suggested making a presence, but staying on a legal route to avoid “conflict for the sake of conflict.”

But many of those who’d made the trip to Blanding insisted. “I came here to open a road,” Ryan Bundy said. “And if we aren’t going to do that, I’m going to get in my truck and go home.”

click to enlarge Protesters at the May 10 ATV rally in Centennial Park in Blanding - ERIC TRENBEATH
  • Protesters at the May 10 ATV rally in Centennial Park in Blanding

In the end, the ride continued as planned, though Lyman urged attendees to act responsibly.

The protesters encountered no opposition from law-enforcement officers or environmental activists. Sheriff’s deputies on horseback stood by while 50 or so riders on ATVs entered the closed canyon. Many of them greeted San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge as they rode past.

“We are here to keep the peace and protect everyone’s constitutional rights,” Eldredge said.

In a statement released immediately after the event, the BLM said they were in Recapture Canyon that day collecting evidence, and that they would pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable.

The Great Old Broads’ Chilcoat worries about a precedent being set. Environmental activists are often made examples of for their acts of civil disobedience, she says, citing Tim DeChristopher, who spent two years in prison for bidding on oil leases with no intention of paying for them.

“Why are [environmental activists] punished, when gun-toting militia men throwing tantrums get to go scott-free?” she asks.

Lynn Jackson, chairman of the Grand County Council, wouldn’t comment on whether Lyman should be prosecuted for violating federal law, but did say that county governments and residents need to deal with issues as they see fit.

“I believe this points to the frustration all of us have in dealing with the federal government,” Jackson says. “And I’m definitely of the opinion that states, and local people, are better equipped to manage their lands.”

Environmentalists take the opposing view.

“The blatant disregard for federal laws and land management decisions designed to protect our cultural heritage must not go unpunished,” says Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). “This event has been a good example of why state and local governments can’t be entrusted to manage public lands.”

She says that SUWA expects the BLM and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to fully prosecute Lyman and others for the actions in Recapture Canyon.

SUWA’s executive director, Scott Groene, says that though states’-rights advocates get louder every time there is a Democrat in the White House, this round seems different.

“Politicians have pushed it to a feverish pitch,” he said. “There is the potential for a real tragedy.”

In a recent assertion of their rights, commissioners in Carbon and Iron Counties have passed resolutions declaring sovereign authority over federal lands within their borders, essentially nullifying the power of federal law-enforcement officers.

“Not to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, with federal agencies,” says Carbon County public-lands director Rex Sacco, “but to inform and define the county/state and federal jurisdictional boundaries by law.”

And the anti-federal feelings extend past Southern Utah. In 2014, Gov. Gary Herbert signed House Bill 148, which demands that federal lands within the state be turned over to the state by the end of 2014, though the state’s legal counsel recently said that this is essentially a fruitless undertaking.

Bishop’s Utah Public Lands Initiative outwardly avoids the issue of state vs. federal authority, but some see it as another avenue to gain greater control over the public lands.

San Juan County has, Lyman says, formed a public-lands advisory council made up of various stakeholders—including conservationists, Native Americans, cattle producers and mineral producers—to get a representative picture of the public-lands interests in San Juan County to pass along to Bishop.

“I am optimistic that we are on the right path,” Lyman says. “But at the end of the day, I will continue to extoll the benefits of local management and local shared resources.”

Will either side ever be able to claim a victory? For Groene, victory will come when SUWA has succeeded in “protecting the lands that citizens have identified as deserving of wilderness protection.”

When asked what would be a victory for him, sagebrush rebel Tibbetts pondered for a moment.

“Aw, hell, it’s all philosophical at this point,” he said. “If you don’t stand for something, you just fall over.”

Eric Trenbeath is a Moab-based freelance writer who spends most of his time hiking, biking and boating the canyons of Southern Utah.

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