Trent Nelson / AP
Published Saturday, May 10, 2014 | 1:50 p.m.
Updated Saturday, May 10, 2014 | 5:25 p.m.
Dozens of people rode their ATVs and motorcycles on an off-limits trail in southern Utah on Saturday in a protest against what the group calls the federal government's overreaching control of public lands.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said from 40 to 50 people, many of them waving American flags and some carrying weapons, 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.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, the protest's organizer, has said it was designed to show that the federal agency isn't the "supreme authority" and local residents have a right to have their opinions heard.
"We're not proponents of breaking the law," Lyman told The Salt Lake Tribune before the ride. "Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn't mean they own the right-of-way that exists."
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 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, BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma said in a statement.
"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."
The group's act of defiance marks the latest illustration of growing tension between angry rural Western residents and the federal government over management of public lands.
The protest occurred nearly a month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters, some of them armed militia members, thwarted a BLM roundup of his cattle near Bunkerville, Nevada, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Bundy, a states' rights advocate who refuses to acknowledge the authority of the federal government, owes more than $1 million in fees and penalties for letting his cattle use government land over the past 20 years.
Some of Bundy's children and militia supporters also took part in the protest in Recapture Canyon.
"This is where it's happening Saturday," Bundy backer Ryan Payne of Montana told the Las Vegas Sun. "This is a continuation of the Bundy affair."
BLM officers recorded and documented protesters who traveled into the closure area, Palma added.
The agency warned riders all week to stay out, vowing prosecution against those who ignore a law put in place in 2007 after an illegal trail was found that cuts through the ancestral ruins. The canyon is open to hikers and horseback riders.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also urged people to uphold the law.
A 14-mile section of trail in the canyon is closed to motorized vehicles, BLM officials said, but there are more than 2,800 miles of trails open to them on public lands around Blanding.
Environmentalists and Native Americans criticized the protest ride, saying the ban is needed to preserve fragile artifacts. Mark Maryboy, a former Navajo Nation Council delegate, called it disappointing that the group had no respect for Native American culture.
"The American tradition of civil disobedience doesn't change the fact that the rule of law needs to mean something," Josh Ewing of the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa told The Tribune. "I'll be very disappointed in my government if it doesn't follow through on upholding the law."
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.