A band of Utah residents rode all-terrain vehicles onto federally managed public land Saturday to protest the Bureau of Land Management closing off the area.
The protest comes weeks after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s successful standoff against the agency over grazing rights and appears to be the latest episode in the battle across the West over states’ rights on federally managed public lands.
In Blanding, Utah, in the state’s scenic southeastern, the protesters and their supporters say the agency has unfairly closed off a prized area, cheating them of outdoor recreation, according to The Los Angeles Times.
However, federal officials say the region, known for its archaeological ruins, has been jeopardized from overuse.
Bureau of Land Management Utah State Director Juan Palma, in a statement, said the riders may have damaged artifacts and dwellings that "tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region" of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
"The BLM was in Recapture Canyon today collecting evidence and will continue to investigate," Palma said. "The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."
Bureau of Land Management officers recorded and documented protesters who traveled into the closure area, he added.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said from 40 to 50 people, many of them waving American flags, drove about a mile down Recapture Canyon near Blanding and then turned around. Hundreds attended a rally at a nearby park before the protest
"It was peaceful, and there were no problems whatsoever," the sheriff told The Associated Press.
About 30 deputies and a handful of U.S. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement personnel watched as protesters drove past a closure sign and down the canyon located about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
The ride was organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to assert local control of the region, known as Recapture Canyon.
Recapture Canyon is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans as many as 2,000 years ago before they mysteriously vanished.
The canyon was closed to motor vehicles in 2007 after two men forged an illegal seven-mile trail. But hikers and those on horseback are still allowed there, according to the agency.
Governments in Western states are trying to get more control over vast tracts of federally owned land in large part because they say the land could be strategically developed to help boost local economies.
Supporters of the decades-old movement also say local governments are better suited to manage the land, considering in part the federal government is understaffed to manage the acreage.
Lyman and his supporters want the BLM to act more quickly on a years-old request for a public right-of-way through the area.
The Blanding protest being spearheaded by a local public official, not a resident, also appears to be a sign of the growing frustrations in a rural county composed of nearly 90 percent public lands managed by the BLM.
Environmental groups have spoken out in support of the BLM, saying that fragile Recapture Canyon must be protected.
Earlier this week, BLM officials notified Lyman that any illegal foray in the area would bring consequences such as citations and arrest.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also urged people to uphold the law.
Earlier this week, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts brandished a handgun at a BLM worker driving an agency vehicle, holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.”
"You need to die." Utah ranchers and county leaders recently threatened to break federal law and round up wild horses this summer if the agency doesn't do it first.
Motorized access to Recapture Canyon and other areas in Utah's wilderness has been a source of tension for decades. ATV riders rode another off-limits trail in 2009 in a protest. The Bureau of Land Management gave information about the riders to federal prosecutors, but no charges were filed.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.