See Part One here.
On September 18th, the BLM held an open house explaining the closure to local residents. The BLM’s acting field manager opened the presentation, telling everyone that the purpose of the closure was to stop traffic through cultural sites. It wasn’t intended to be permanent, he said. He emphasized that the BLM was prohibited by law from allowing impact to cultural resources. That echoed the language of the closure signs: “Under the Code of Federal Regulations 43 [etc., etc.], BLM has the authority to close an area to motorized recreational use … when it concludes that the use is causing, or is threatening to cause, considerable adverse effects to resources, including cultural resources. Based on the damage to cultural resources in the … area resulting from OHV use … and the likelihood of continuing damage from OHV use, it is appropriate to use this authority to close portions of the … area … to motorized recreational use, including OHV use ….”
Regulations, the field manager said, required closing the canyon ASAP and before a public meeting on the action. Once it comes to BLM attention that a site is damaged, he repeated, they’re legally required to close it. The language I read and heard from the BLM on this matter was strikingly consistent. Clearly, it meant something beside what it said; I just didn’t know what.
Locals attending the open house crowded around the BLM field manager and other BLM officers and employees to express suspicion and dismay. Many expressed fear that the purpose of this “temporary” closure was to sneak in on them a permanent one. Members of the local ATV activist group, SPEAR (San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights), wanted to know which archaeologists had declared the cultural sites damaged. “Most archaeologists don’t want the canyon open at all,” one SPEAR member said. “They’re very biased.” Some felt ATVers had been unfairly singled out. “BLM depends on SPEAR to protect those sites,” one fellow exclaimed. “It’s the hikers that are the problem!” As a “hiker,” I protested this remark, with mixed results.
Later, I cornered the acting BLM field manager and asked if the locals’ fears that the canyon’s closure would morph from temporary to permanent were justified. Had there been other closures in the area that extended beyond proposed periods for damage assessment and rehab work? He told me that a “temporary closure” in Bluff, a town to the south, is now “two or three years old.”
At home that night, my daughter told me that neighbor children had said their father blamed me for the canyon’s closure. He’d said within their hearing that probably I’d been the one who reported the archaeological damage to the BLM so that they’d close it and I’d have the canyon all to myself. Besides seeing my backpack-laden form pass his house often over the last year as I’d made my way to the canyon, he’d also seen me talking with the BLM law enforcement officer at the onset of the closure back on the 15th. Because I have done archaeological work, I am able to identify some kinds of sites and had noticed the damage done in the canyon. Report it? No, hadn’t done that, but I guessed that protesting my innocence would stir the pot rather than settle anything. Furthermore, reflecting on my behavior at the open house, I realized that common acts of professional courtesy, like exchanging cards with the BLM archaeologist—a woman I’d worked with over two decades ago but hadn’t seen since—may have appeared incriminating to my neighbors in attendance. I realized that maintaining clearly defined neutrality in this business would be difficult.
To be continued …