Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
E&E PM: Friday, May 30, 2014

The Bureau of Land Management will not issue citations to the dozens who rode all-terrain vehicles into an off-limits area of Utah’s Recapture Canyon, deferring instead to the U.S. attorney’s office in Salt Lake City to take further action.

BLM Utah is still completing its investigation into who violated the agency’s 2007 closure order, which banned motorized vehicles in 1,871 acres of the canyon east of Blanding in order to protect Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years.

It is also assessing whether those who participated in the May 10 protest ride damaged any of the canyon’s ceramic hearths, storage cisterns, ceremonial kivas and other American Indian sites, which is a separate and potentially more severe federal offense.

“Once the effort is finished, the BLM will turn everything over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for potential further action,” BLM Utah spokeswoman Megan Crandall said. “We have devoted substantial resources to conducting a thorough and fair investigation and are proceeding as expeditiously as possible.”

Some conservationists had hoped BLM would use its authority to issue citations to those who violated the closure order, saying it would be a small but symbolic deterrent to other would-be lawbreakers.

BLM would not need approval from the Justice Department to do so.

The agency sent two plainclothes law enforcement officers to document and record those who drove into the nonmotorized part of Recapture, but they chose not to issue citations on-site to avoid conflict, Crandall said.

Roughly 50 people, some of them armed, led by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman reportedly rode ATVs through the canyon to protest BLM’s management of federal lands. Riders included followers and one son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose weeklong standoff with BLM in southern Nevada last month nearly ended in gunfire.

Some worry that BLM’s decision to halt the roundup of Bundy’s cattle and stand down during the Recapture ride could encourage others to violate laws on public lands.

When Utah BLM referred a case of ATV trespassing to the U.S. attorney in 2009 — when roughly 500 riders splashed up the Paria River in a wilderness study area in southern Utah — no federal charges were ever filed.

“It’s important they not continue this pattern of backing off,” said Lynell Schalk, a former BLM law enforcement special agent in Oregon who retired in 2001. “People get emboldened.”

Schalk said U.S. attorneys have declined a greater percentage of cases in Utah — where archaeological crimes are more common — than in other parts of the West. She said that politics often are at play and that BLM may be relying on DOJ as a buffer.

But for U.S. attorneys in Utah, “there’s not as much understanding of natural resources cases as we had here in Oregon, which is more pro-environment,” Schalk said.

Crandall said it was unclear whether BLM would release its damage assessment to the public before the U.S. Attorney’s Office concludes its involvement.

But BLM State Director Juan Palma earlier this month said the agency would aggressively pursue action.

“The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable,” he said.

The penalty for driving an ATV into a closed area on public lands is a maximum $1,000 fine or a year in jail under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. First-time offenders who violate the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 can be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned up to two years.

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