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BLANDING, Utah — Jason Holiday revved the engine of his forest green all-terrain vehicle last Saturday, waiting in line behind the five other ATVs preparing to cross into a section of trail in Recapture Canyon that had been declared off limits by the federal government.
Holiday was one of nearly 200 who showed up to a protest organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, one of many locals angered that their request to drive ATVs on the trail hadn’t been answered by the Bureau of Land Management.
“The BLM, they just keep taking more and more,” Holiday said. “And we’re just tired of it.”
Clouds of dust and the sound of cheers filled the air as the traffic jam got moving and more than 45 additional ATVs crossed over the boundary line that restricts trail use to horse and foot travel, in part to help preserve archaeological sites.
The event was not meant to be a copycat version of the armed standoff last month between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and BLM agents, although Bundy’s son, Ryan, was among those who crossed state lines to attend.
Instead, according to Lyman, the protest was to express the community’s anger over the amount of time the BLM was taking to process the county’s request on ATVs and recreational use of the trail.
Tensions over federal land management policies have been flaring up a lot among rural Western residents recently. And this illegal ride was just the latest flashpoint emerging from those frustrations.
“We have rights here in San Juan County that are being trampled on,” Lyman said.
A tall order
The crowd waved American flags and homemade signs that read “Transfer federal land to Western states.” They cheered in agreement as speaker after speaker took the mike to deliver words of encouragement and messages of frustration with the local district of the BLM.
Lyman said he organized the demonstration several weeks ago to protest what he called overreaching federal land management policies that are affecting his community.
“Whether there should be motorized traffic in Recapture or not is not the issue here. It’s why does the BLM take that heavy-handed approach in mandating what happens to people?” he added.
Currently, the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land west of Colorado. A majority of that acreage is managed by the BLM. Thanks to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the bureau, along with the Forest Service, must manage the land under its control in a manner that supports multiple uses. That includes resource extraction like mining and fracking, recreation and conservation.
It’s a tall order, said BLM Utah spokeswoman Megan Crandall, and balancing those interests is a complex process that sometimes leads to conflict. “It’s our job to work together with all of our stakeholders to determine where the best place on public lands is for those individual uses and resources,” she said.
She added that the agency works hard to make sure the community has a seat at the table when decisions are made about its public lands. But, Crandall added, the mix of resources and desired land uses that exist within an area can’t always coexist.
“When we say multiple use, I think one of the confusions that exists for many folks is that they think multiple use means every use on every acre, and that’s not the case.”
Who should have control?
Things like wilderness preservation and endangered-species habitat protection can limit the activities allowed on certain acreage. When it comes to the acreage around Recapture Canyon, Crandall said the bureau closed the area to motorized vehicles in 2007 because it was home to sensitive archaeological sites that several nearby tribes consider culturally significant.
The federal government owns about 65 percent of the land within Utah’s borders. And tensions over public land management are not new in that state. One of the latest stages of the discussion there took place in April, when about 50 lawmakers from nine Western states gathered in Salt Lake City for the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands.
Those who attended had one main argument: Western states should have control of the public land within their borders.
“When you have centralized bureaucratic management by people who don’t know the geography, geology, climate or the industry of the community, you’re getting a one-size-fails-all approach,” said Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, a prominent figure in the movement.
Two years ago, Ivory sponsored the Transfer of Public Lands Act, legislation demanding that Congress transfer the control of Utah’s public land back to the state. If Congress doesn’t comply, the state will sue. However, many legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of that law.
“You get a much better result by those whose livelihoods depend upon the wise management of the land,” he said. Ivory argued that states are more nimble than the federal government and more capable of managing land for both environmental protection and economic growth.
Winners and losers
But not everyone has that much faith in the ability of Western states to responsibly manage public land. “We have a lot of concerns about what it would look like to turn our public lands over to the states,” said Jessica Goad, the advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Would they still be public? What restrictions would the states put on them?”
Goad said that in addition to concerns about the quality of environmental protections the states would enforce, strained state budgets could also pose a threat to the preservation of wilderness.
“We would worry that in order to make that money, they would put some pretty important places up for mining or drilling or maybe sell them off to the highest bidder,” she explained.
Goad added that, for the most part, she’s happy with the way federal agencies have managed the country’s public land.
“There’s no philosophical reason to say that states would do a better job managing public lands, or necessarily a worse job, but they would certainly do a different job,” said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University. “There would be different winners and losers if that were to happen.”
He explained that the reason so much of the West is under federal management has a lot to do with how the states were admitted into the Union at the turn of the 20th century. During that process, many signed the rights to their public lands over to the federal government.
“There are many reasons to celebrate those federal lands,” said Freemuth, “and there are other reasons folks have to bemoan that situation.”
Production or protection
In the early 20th century, much of the country’s federally managed land was used for resource extraction, like timber harvesting, grazing, and oil and gas production. But then, explained Freemuth, as time went by, public sentiment began to shift toward conservation and land protection, values that threatened the Mountain West economies that depended on those industries.
“Folks out here, some of them feel like their economies have suffered, the jobs have gone away and too much land is protected,” he said.
Freemuth added that while the argument to transfer federal public land to the states had seen significant national attention lately, the level of actual public support for the movement is unclear; he cited the overwhelming defeat of Arizona’s Proposition 120 in 2012. The proposed amendment to the state Constitution demanded that all federal lands, including the Grand Canyon, be turned over to state or private ownership.
Despite some tense moments, the protest in Blanding ended peacefully on Saturday. And while Lyman said he understands the need to protect cultural resources, the local government should have been more involved in the decision to close the trail in Recapture Canyon.
“With free people, you come and you talk to them, and you make a decision with the local governing officials, which is the county,” he said.
A BLM-sponsored damage assessment in the area is currently underway and could result in the prosecution of several protesters.
According to BLM officials, the community’s application to restore ATV traffic through the canyon is still under review, pending the completion of an environmental assessment. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.