See Part Two posted 9/27.
On September 22nd, I rose early and hiked into Crossfire. Afterward, I stopped at the local market and ran into a women I’d seen at the BLM’s open house, one of the most vocal SPEAR members present that night. We greeted each other and she demanded to know who I was and what my interest in the canyon was. “Are you one of those tree-huggers or something else?” she asked. “Who are you affiliated with?” “No one,” I said. “I’m a floating free agent.” When I explained I was new to the area, she said, “Well, if you’re going to live in San Juan Country, you need to get you an ATV!” I said I hoped people wouldn’t think too much less of me if I didn’t. I allowed how as a “hiker,” my freedom to enter favorite canyons was also in jeopardy. “Have you ever requested a tour of the damaged areas?” I asked. Wonder dawned in her face. “No,” she said. “But that’s a dang good idea!”
On September 23rd, while doing background Internet research as I tried to find out more about the groups involved in the conflict, I ran across the website of the hiking club the BLM law enforcement officer had introduced to me superficially back on the 15th. As I read their on-line Winter 2007 newsletter, missing puzzle pieces fell into place. It told how a retired BLM special agent now living in Bluff, Utah had contacted this group, based in Durango, Colorado, and alerted them to the destruction of cultural resources that ATV use had caused because this Colorado group had been running an off-road vehicle monitoring program. This group’s staff members then hiked into Crossfire and documented illegally constructed trails and other damage to the canyon, probably more than once. I recognized a dog in one of the pictures in the newsletter. About a year ago, my kids and I ran into two women and a man in Crossfire Canyon. The man was packing an impressive camera and tripod. The dog in the Internet newsletter picture was one of the dogs accompanying the trio that day.
The article asserted how the local BLM, “… in numerous instances, has given incomplete and less than accurate information, has attempted to ‘cover up’ and legitimize these illegal activities, and is receiving considerable pressure from San Juan County and SPEAR (San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights), the local ATV organization, to acquiesce to their demands.” (Sound familiar?) Suddenly, the BLM’s language for the closure made sense: “Once it comes to BLM attention that a site is damaged, we’re legally required to close it.” My guess: The Colorado group had supplied the BLM with overwhelming evidence and/or exerted legal pressure on them to comply with federal regulations. In the newsletter, the group described itself as “working in partnership with SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), which is providing legal assistance and grassroots organizing expertise, to stop illegal activity on these lands.” Furthermore, the Colorado group states that one of its goals is to return parts of Utah to “quiet users and the critters.”
Uh-huh. The locals’ fears that this temporary closure might turn into a permanent one are justified. Furthermore, it’s apparent to me that the Colorado group is dedicated, sophisticated and well connected. For nearly a year, they’ve planned and worked, pitting photography and other forms of documentation, GPS mapping skills, and application of modern conservation law against some of the most recalcitrant frontier-era concepts of land use and stewardship mounted on the latest model ATVs. While ATVers and other San Juan County groups have been making shows of strength on spiffed-up ATVs and driving floats displaying SUWA-prohibited signs in Fourth of July parades, activists have quietly managed the posting of OHV-prohibited signs in the ATVers’ “backyard.” I think many of my Mormon neighbors still aren’t sure what hit them.
In the general land use lexicon, the word “stewardship” remains too slippery, perhaps, in some cases, deliberately so. I wrote here about some of my ideas why that might be, but in my community, it appears that some still nurture a concept of stewardship rooted to one-hundred-year-old pre-ATV ideas that include subduing the land and using it at will to sustain a settlement. Some of my acquaintances assert that the Anasazi culture has given nothing to their Euro-American one; why, they wonder, is preserving their primitive architecture, artifacts and trash heaps so important? Meanwhile, just a few hours south in Arizona and New Mexico, the Puebloan peoples whose ancestors the Anasazi were fight their own cultural battles. An archaeologist friend tells me that many Hopi and other Puebloans still come into this area to hunt. When they find Anasazi sites, they build shrines on them. LDS ought not to find this connection between place and origins difficult to understand. The LDS Church maintains a strong presence on lands deemed of historical significance to the origins and development of its own culture, the Hill Cumorah Pageant in New York, which yours truly has attended, being one of many examples.
As long as the embattled local residents don’t understand or refuse to consider what’s wrong with causing wear and tear to cultural or natural resources, they make it easy for groups like the one out of Colorado to take steps to monitor and control them. In other words, they run the risk of being “managed” like a nuisance species, just as their pioneer forebears took it upon themselves to manage mountain lions and coyotes that didn’t get what was wrong with killing settlers’ lambs and calves in their “backyard.” Such management policies will include ideologically, technologically, legally, and above all, bureaucratically reinforced rabbit-proof fencing. Parade floats and steaming letters to the editors of local newspapers just won’t cut it; rather than promoting change for the better, such behavior maintains the battle, making the fight the focal point rather than progress toward better circumstances for most or all involved. Some reading this series have posed possible courses of action, suggesting, for instance, that residents dissatisfied with the most vocal and combative camps form another. Whether or not Crossfire remains closed to ATVers, the appearance of some new group, more balanced in its approach and more carefully spoken in its appeals, could not only help folks adapt to more current land use philosophies and practices but also open up possibilities nobody has yet imagined.