BLANDING, Utah -- More than 200 people rode ATVs through a long-off-limits canyon in southern Utah on Saturday to protest the ongoing federal closure and demand more local control over land-use decisions.
The ride drew promises of potential prosecution.
Although the federal Bureau of Land Management's plainclothes rangers documented the ride through Recapture Canyon, they deliberately avoided any confrontation. Many of the ATV riders were armed and invoked the cause of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in violating the canyon's closure. Bundy's son attended a pre-ride rally, lending his family's support to the protest.
Just after 10 a.m., protesters began rumbling through the canyon, often stopping to photograph Indian cliff dwellings. The land is controlled by the BLM, which last month got into an armed confrontation with Bundy over his use of federal land.
The BLM eventually backed down in its efforts to round up Bundy's cattle on its land. The Utah protesters included militia members who drove from Bundy's ranch to participate in Saturday's ride.
"I was not going to have another Bunkerville, Nevada," said San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge. "It was very peaceful. Everyone was very respectful."
Protest organizer Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner, said the BLM needs to work cooperatively with local officials. He said the trail through Recapture Canyon is legally a county road and should never have been closed to vehicles by an appointed bureaucrat. Hikers, bicyclists and equestrians were unaffected by the closure.
"Why does the BLM take such a heavy-handed approach?" Lyman said at the pre-ride rally. "That's not the way you deal with a community."
Bundy's son Ryan offered his support for the ATV riders in their fight to "take back" Utah from the federal government. About 90% of the land in San Juan County is under federal control.
The BLM closed the 12-mile-long trail to motorized use in 2007 and has declined to reopen it despite repeated requests and protests from local government officials. Environmentalists believe the trail should remain closed to motorized use to protect the numerous Indian ruins, which include burial sites and cliff dwellings.
Representatives of one environmental group maintained a low-key presence during the protest ride, photographing and documenting any damage. Riders plowed down sagebrush and splashed through a stream as they rumbled down the canyon, their engine noise echoing off the rocky walls.
In a statement, BLM officials in Utah said their rangers "today focused on recording and documenting individuals who chose to violate the law by traveling into the closure area on ATVs. The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."
Several ATV riders said they felt it was time to take a stand.
"We're not here to terrorize, to disrupt," said Blanding native Farley Crofts as he zip-tied a Gadsden flag to his side-by-side ATV. "We just want to have access to what we've had access to for years."
And rider Devan Palmer said he doesn't understand why the government forces private businesses to install handicapped-accessible facilities but blocks elderly people from riding ATVs on Recapture.
"They'll make you spend millions so my grandmother can get to the bathroom, but they won't let her on trails she grew up on."