Phil Lyman, elected a county commissioner for San Juan County in Utah, thinks that people should be able to use public land near them as they see fit. The Federal Bureau of Land Management disagrees, at least partly. Since 2007 about 14 miles of trails have been closed to motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon to protect Pueblo Indian artifacts amid Anasazi ruins. The Bureau of Land Management, which regulates the area–and much land in the west–emphasizes that 2,800 miles of trails on nearby public lands were open for use.
For Commissioner Lyman and his allies, this isn’t enough. To demonstrate their beliefs, about 300 people rallied before a few dozen rode All Terrain Vehicles into a restricted area, while law enforcement officials looked on. At least some of the protesters were armed. Commissioner Lyman emphasized the protest was against federal disregard for the interests and opinions of local residents, “Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn’t mean they own the right-of-way that exists.”
The BLM has promised prosecution of people who violate the law, and Commissioner Lyman said that everyone present realized they risked arrest.
Although some protesters were armed, the protest itself was peaceful, and local law enforcement emphasized, orderly and contained. Other reports emphasized that some of Cliven Bundy’s children were present; they have their own dispute about the use of federal lands. And it’s hardly surprising that Native American nations and environmentalists were outraged.
Public spaces across the country are regulated by the government which, ostensibly, represents the public interest. There are rules about access and conduct, and sometimes use fees. The government is supposed to balance competing interests, including safety, preservation, and revenue. People who don’t get what they want are, understandably, resentful about what public means in practice. (Confession: I resent that California charges $15 to park at my favorite surfing beach, which abuts a now-closed nuclear power plant–also on public land.)
Getting what you want from public resources is a function of political action, and elected officials ostensibly have more direct ways to influence political decisions that illegal protest. But government is big and complicated, with all kinds of different interests and access points. Change is extremely difficult, and organized interests often fail to see your interests as important and unambiguous as you do.
Taking the space through direct action, even risking damage to the area, isn’t a strategy peculiar to Westerners who want to ride their ATVs in protected areas, and Phil Lyman is hardly the first elected official to engage in civil disobedience.
Even acknowledging very different purposes and constituencies, the ATV riders remind me of the Occupy campaign. Many more people, of course, seized on the urban spaces to make political claims; they were at it for much longer, and they weren’t armed, but they thought their use of the spaces trumped other interests and concerns. Most significantly, however, they drew massive attention to their actions and issues.
It’s now up to the BLM to decide how to react to the protesters, and up to the voters of San Juan County to decide how to respond to Phil Lyman, who is running unopposed for re-election as a commissioner.