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Community space 'Recaptured'

Butler Ruins near Blanding, Utah.
Butler Ruins near Blanding, Utah.
Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News Archives

“The same soil is good for men and for trees. A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above, while another primitive forest rots below — such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages. In such a soil grew Homer and Confucius and the rest, and out of such a wilderness comes the reformer eating locusts and wild honey.” — Henry David Thoreau

As kids growing up in Blanding, Utah, my friends and I spent a lot of time hiking the canyons that surrounded our hometown. As fourth- and fifth-graders, our main concern was getting out of school and finishing our chores early enough so we still had time to hike to a suitable camping spot before dark.

It seems we too often fail to treasure what we have in the moment, only to realize later that it was more important than we thought. It was not long before our attention turned to football or girls. Whatever the distraction, we spent less time in the canyons and more time pursuing other ambitions.

Today, Recapture Canyon, the wild frontier of my childhood, carries a different emotional tone. One reporter called Recapture Canyon, “a signature event in the war over public lands.” Really? Is that what Recapture is? A symbol of conflict? The contemplation of that reality creates in me a deep sadness, and resolve, that is hard to put into words.

In July 2007, the Bureau of Land Management did an emergency closure of Recapture Canyon. With 8,000 square miles in San Juan County to choose from, they chose a canyon a quarter of a mile wide and 11 miles long, which sits within spitting distance of Blanding. The reason the BLM gave for the closure was illegal trail construction.

Recapture, once alive and mysterious, now feels restricted and subdued. Where, once, you felt that you were treading on sacred ground as you started your decent into this canyon, you now find BLM closure signs. The trails have tree limbs and rocks dragged onto them by self-proclaimed “Site Stewards” who have taken responsibility to “protect” these “treasured landscapes.”

The trail maintenance that was done was not construction, nor was it illegal. This canyon was designated as “open access” at the time, and motorized travel was 100 percent permissible. The trail was one of the many trails in the canyon that had been used for decades. Some of the trails had probably been used since the Anasazis occupied the canyon. A 100-plus-year-old pioneer wagon road once stretched from the San Juan River on the south to the base of Blue Mountain on the north, following the creek the entire length of Recapture Canyon. There are still active grazing permits for Recapture. Until a few years ago, there was an active gold mine in the canyon. As you explore the canyon, evidence of old structures and side roads are everywhere.

The trail maintenance done by two local citizens and friends of mine, Ken and Dustin, was met with robust punishment by the BLM. They were charged, then, with no legal counsel and under threat of imprisonment, and with the promise of minimal action from the BLM, they pled guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges. When they were fined $35,000, they were shocked and confounded.

In 2012, I invited the BLM and the community to “walk” the Recapture Trail and see the alleged “damages” firsthand. We had a nice hike, but no one was able to point to damages caused by the existence of the trail or the work done by Ken and Dustin. (Incidentally, San Juan County maintains that removing overgrown limbs, shoring up cribbing, and other routine maintenance action is within its jurisdiction on existing trails, routes and roads. In this instance, the BLM overstepped its authority.)

In August of 2012, I invited the BLM’s state director to come and walk the trail. He graciously did so. After a hot but pleasant morning in Recapture, we visited with Ken and Dustin. Dustin said, “I would still like to know what I did; what was the damage that they claimed I did; I have never even been told.” That is the story of Recapture: Taking something special and using it as leverage over those who value it most. It is a ploy at least as old as King Solomon.

Thomas Paine said, “It is not a field of a few acres of ground, but a cause, that we are defending, and whether we defeat the enemy in one battle, or by degrees, the consequences will be the same.” On May 8, 2014, we are planning another excursion into Recapture. This time we are inviting all who would like to join us. Come and see for yourself; I think you will agree that the real damage is the debris in the trail, the barricades blocking access and the warning signs placed at every turn.

I was trying to think of a good name for this May 8th event. As I write this article and think about happier times, the name that seems to fit best is simply, “Recapture.”

Phil Lyman is a San Juan County commissioner.