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In Utah, How You Tread Through This Canyon Matters

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An Anasazi cliff dwelling, one of many ancient ruins in Recapture Canyon, Utah.

Phil Lyman cared so much about what he sees as his right to drive all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Canyon, he went to jail for it.

"Going into this, you know, I've said a number of times, I'm a foot soldier," the San Juan County, Utah, commissioner says. "I'm not a captain. I'm not a general. I'm willing to die on a battlefield for a good cause."

Lyman's battlefield is an old jeep trail near his home in Blanding, Utah, that's become a flash point in the struggle by rural counties that want control of federal public land. The Bureau of Land Management temporarily closed the trail more than a decade ago. Recapture Canyon is prized for its sensitive Native American cultural sites, and ancient artifacts were being damaged and looted.

Three years ago, with the closure still enforced, a frustrated Lyman led an off-road vehicle brigade deep into the canyon.

Then, protesters kicked up dust as their tires traveled across land considered sensitive to indigenous people while they waved American flags. This caused a stir on reservations and in cities, while Lyman became a darling of the far right movement in the rural West.

Today, Lyman is still on probation. A federal judge sentenced Lyman to 10 days in jail for that protest ride, but today, he's feeling vindicated.

This month the BLM partially lifted the ban on off-roading in Recapture Canyon. Some of the canyon floor itself where the protest happened is still closed. But BLM is promising to build a new network of ATV trails on the rim and partway down the canyon.

"I don't know if I won; I hope ultimately that we win," Lyman says.

He says he's encouraged by the timing of this announcement under the new administration, which he thinks will give a friendlier ear to his cause.

"After an 11-year wait, to me, that signals, 'Hey, we hear you,' " he says.

The new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke is using the Recapture Canyon plan as a model for how to increase access to U.S. public lands for all users, motorized or not.

But in the canyon, BLM's Lisa Bryant is hesitant to describe this plan as a big policy shift.

The decision to temporarily ban off-roaders in the canyon happened during the George W. Bush administration. The impacts to cultural sites had become a big issue, she says, and it took time to come up with the right balance.

"In the canyon bottom itself, we haven't authorized motorized access but prefer people to visit on horseback or on foot, much the way their ancestors did," Bryant says.

But hiking down toward one of the Anasazi cliff dwellings — the canyon is dense with them — you can still see illegal motorcycle tire tracks in the mud.

Environmentalists say one of the biggest unknowns of this plan is whether there will actually be funding to enforce the closure, let alone rehabilitate some of the damaged cultural sites. Yet they too are declaring a partial victory here. Neal Clark of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says Lyman's protest ride went nowhere because ATVs are still banned from the most sensitive areas.

"It's sending a clear signal that illegal activity as a means to forward your agenda for public land uses is not going to be tolerated by the federal agencies," Clark says.

So it's one of those rare moments in the fiery debate over federal public lands in which both sides seem willing to stand down — for now.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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