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Utah archaeological site becomes protest site in federal land dispute

September 18, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
A prized Native American archaeological site in Utah has become the center of a new battle over local vs. federal control. As part of our series Culture at Risk, Jeffrey Brown reports from Recapture Canyon, where ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings and artifacts remain after more than a millennium -- and a Bureau of Land Management decision to close the canyon to motorized vehicles has prompted protest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A battle over the question of local control vs. federal power is playing out in the Western U.S. once again, and this time, it involves a prized Native American archaeological site.

It’s happening in Utah, where federal prosecutors filed criminal charges of conspiracy yesterday against five men who organized an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride into a canyon closed to motorized vehicles. Seven years ago, federal land managers closed the canyon to ATVs and the like to protect it. Since that time, the dispute has come to stand for a much larger fight.

Jeffrey Brown visited the canyon and the protest organizers for his series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s called Recapture Canyon, 28 miles of rocky cliffs, juniper trees and wildlife in southeast Utah.

And for hundreds of years, beginning around 500 A.D., it was home to a large Native American Pueblo population.

So how many people would have lived in a place like this?

JODY PATTERSON, Archaeologist: In a structure like, you would have probably had an extended family, 10, 12, maybe up to 15 people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Utah archaeologist Jody Patterson brought us on a mile-long hike into Recapture to see the remains of one of its many cliff dwellings.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a little like an apartment complex built into the rock here.

JODY PATTERSON: That’s exactly what this is. You have enough rooms for living, for cooking, for sleeping, and for some activity areas, too, for doing some other things out in front.

JEFFREY BROWN: For archaeologists and history buffs, Recapture Canyon is a gold mine, one that requires careful preservation.

JODY PATTERSON: We need to understand the impacts that are going to be happening to sites like this throughout the canyon before we open it up and just let everybody come in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And seven years ago, the federal Bureau of Land Management agreed.

Megan Crandall is a BLM spokeswoman.

MEGAN CRANDALL, Spokeswoman, Bureau of Land Management Utah: In 2007, we decided to close the canyon because of the amazing cultural and archaeological resources that are here. We needed to protect them from the degradation that can occur when you’re using the area with motorized recreation.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the years of closure have angered many. Earlier this summer, local residents, all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts and states rights advocates came to Recapture to protest what they see as a blatant abuse of power by the federal government.

Hundreds showed up, some riding illegally into the canyon. John Fellmeth attended the Recapture protest, though he rode no further than the canyon closure.

JOHN FELLMETH: It just seems like ATVs, which we view as perfectly legitimate, is ofttimes cast as an inappropriate and damaging use of the outdoors, of the federal lands. It’s simply not the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last May’s demonstration in Recapture came only weeks after the showdown in Nevada between the well-armed rancher Cliven Bundy and the BLM over unpaid grazing fees. So, tensions throughout the West were high.

PHIL LYMAN, San Juan County Commissioner: Something magical about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was the man who organized the Recapture protest. Walking along the cliffs above the canyon, Lyman says he too has a sense of history and love for this place.

PHIL LYMAN: That’s been there for 800 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lyman, who lives in nearby Blanding, comes from a long line of Mormon settlers who founded towns across the state.

PHIL LYMAN: For those of us who live here, and our grandparents and our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were involved in building those roads, you can’t just erase a town’s history that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Lyman, this dispute is about how much say local governments have over federal land decisions. It’s major issue in a state where the federal government owns two-thirds of all land.

PHIL LYMAN: It was the BLM’s disregard for local interests, local culture, the local people, the people who live here and have lived here for a long time. That’s why I say it wasn’t about Recapture. It wasn’t about ATVs. It was trying to get a message through that there are actually people here. We have the same rights to exist in this area that you have the rights to exist, you know, in Washington, D.C., or wherever you come from.

JEFFREY BROWN: He says local officials should have the right to decide how to use what he sees as a well-established pathway. And he’s angered by the length of time this has all taken, seven years and running.

In response, BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall told us that determining environmental and other impacts is a complicated process.

MEGAN CRANDALL: We have a responsibility to look at things like water, look at wildlife, look at plant resources, soil resources. The whole thing creates a holistic picture, and that takes time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the things we hear from people is just this frustration with process, heavy-handedness, lack of engagement.

MEGAN CRANDALL: Well, first of all, I have to say, BLM Utah is not heavy-handed. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that here in San Juan County on BLM land, there’s 2,800 miles of trails that are open to motorized recreation, which is about the distance between New York and L.A. That’s a lot of trail.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crandall also points out that Recapture Canyon is still open to non-motorized travel, hikers and horseback riders.

For Phil Lyman, that’s not the point.

PHIL LYMAN: It’s just rolling over the top of communities. And this resonates with other rural — rural Western communities, because they have seen it themselves. They’re dealing with the BLM.

JERRY SPANGLER, Executive Director, Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance: So one of you will run a tape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two hundred miles to the north in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, Jerry Spangler agrees there’s something bigger going on, even if he disagrees with Lyman about everything else.

JERRY SPANGLER: Right now, the main task is to get this large residential feature documented and get the rock art documented and the relationship of any artifacts to those two features. OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: Spangler is an archaeologist working to preserve sites throughout Utah, including thousands of petroglyphs, like the Great Hunter Panel. He sees a variety of potential threats, from well-organized oil and gas exploration to random vandalism.

JERRY SPANGLER: I use the example all the time that archaeological sites are like books, and that book will tell you a complete story about the people who live there. But once you start denigrating the site, you are just ripping out pages out of that book.

And you rip out enough pages, pretty soon, the story doesn’t make any sense. We want to keep to book together. We have got a library of books that can tell us a very rich story about people who lived 1,000 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, San Juan County commissioners, including Phil Lyman, recently voted to bring a lawsuit against the BLM to force a decision on motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff has more on our Web site about archaeological sites at risk in Utah. Tomorrow night, he will have a second story about a very different kind of dispute over land use in the West, extreme sports.