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Friday, June 13, 2014

San Juan County, Calvin Black and the new Sagebrush Rebels

Reluctant Rebellion in the Utah Desert

I have a deep and long-nurtured fondness for the landscape of San Juan County, Utah, in the far southeastern corner of the state. My parents often took me camping there when I was very young, and we hiked and slept under a river of stars in many a Cedar Mesa canyon -- Arch, Owl, Fish, Mule. Later, when I was a teenager and then even more when I was in my twenties, my friends and I backpacked as many canyons as we could. The vision of Comb Ridge, glowing in late afternoon sun, is burnt upon my brain. As is the memory of the Christmas-time backpack to a tributary of Owl, when a huge snowstorm arrived in the night, making the hike and drive out an epic adventure. After the car ended up in a ditch, far from any highway, and we hiked for hours through thigh-deep snowdrifts, a BLM ranger spotted us and gave us a ride to Blanding, where the fine folks at the Elk Ridge motel and cafe put us up for the night until my dad could come get us.

And because of this fondness, it really pisses me off when people like San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman make it their crusade to open up every inch of public land in the county to the ravages of motorized vehicles. Not only does driving the vehicles themselves wreck the fragile desert ecosystem and archaeological sites, but so does the increased access and crowds that comes with opening up so-called roads to motorized travel. That these so-called Sagebrush Rebels have made motorized travel their main ideology is simply absurd.

Yet I also have a certain sympathy for these folks: I know how frustrating it can be to have a piece of land that you considered to be your backyard shut off to access of one sort or another. It's especially maddening when the land is shut down by someone far away, whether it's an absentee landowner or a land manager in Salt Lake or Washington, D.C.

When I traveled to Blanding to observe an illegal ATV ride and protest into archaeologically rich Recapture Canyon that truly is in Blanding's backyard, I tried to keep both of those notions in mind. And then I wrote about it for High Country News. It was the type of story I really like to cover, one where I can get on the ground and be there for a particular event, but also bring a context to the story that others, from faraway locales, may miss.
A sampling of firearms seen at the protest.

This couple came from the Bundy Ranch to Blanding. They're from Provo, Utah.

The Silver Bullet: Top-notch, Sagebrush Rebellion-beat reporting vehicle.