Time to Smack Down Trespassing Vigilantes and Thugs

"This land is your land, this land is my land," Woody Guthrie, 1952.

"This is OUR land," Jarbidge Shovel Brigade Official Web Site, 2002.

On Sept. 1, 1846, my great-grandfather's great-grandfather camped with his family in a place that is now the outskirts of Elko, Nevada. It was a silent night. There were no roads for hundreds of miles. It would be over a half century before the first automobile would be built. It would be a full century before Cliven Bundy's father would begin grazing cattle on the federal land that pioneers like my ancestors conquered.

Things have changed since the 1840s. Today, only the most inaccessible fragments of our shared land are unmarred by intrusions.

The few remaining wild, roadless areas are special, spectacular places, with untracked deserts, grassy prairies, and healthy forests. Wildlife and archaeological sites are protected by isolation, and people can visit for solitude and rejuvenation. This land is your land.

Without protection, roads and development will eventually swallow up the last places. Unfortunately, there is a dangerous and growing movement spawned by greedy welfare ranchers and motorized recreation industries to grab this public treasure for their own gain.

The latest ugly manifestation of this movement was Saturday's armed and motorized invasion of Recapture Canyon, a remote area rich in Native American ruins -- and sacred burial grounds -- near Blanding, Utah. Our democratically-elected federal government has jurisdiction over it on our behalf.

Like racist rancher Cliven Bundy of Nevada, the invaders do not recognize the authority of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- at least not all the people. Americans fought and died for this land, but the invaders do not think it belongs to the American people. They think it belongs to them.

Photojournalists captured them racing unhelmeted across the landscape with children in tow, as if competing for this year's Darwin Award. Some were waving American flags with no sense of irony over the fact that they are trashing -- both physically and metaphorically -- what it stands for.

(Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune)

There is a long history of disrespect for public land and its owners by off-road joy riders (and their industry supporters) in the West. More than a decade ago, a vigilante group called the "Jarbidge Shovel Brigade" was formed to seize the control of public lands in Elko County, Nevada.

In 1995, a road to the Jarbidge Wilderness Area washed out. To protect the nearby Jarbidge River and its endangered bull trout fishery from soil erosion, the U.S. Forest Service decided to keep the streamside road closed to motor vehicles. The road was blocked off with large boulders.

This did not sit well with some locals, who organized a work party to defy federal protection of our public land and take the law into their own hands. On July 4, 2000, they converged on the site, removed the boulders, and built their own unauthorized road. The Forest Service, wanting to avoid confrontation, let the matter go. By abdicating their duty to protect the land that belongs to all citizens, they set the stage for the Bundy debacle, and now the lawlessness in Recapture Canyon.

The philosophy of the burgeoning anti-government movement seems to be this: they can do anything they want anywhere they want, regardless of environmental harm, federal protective rulings to the contrary, or the will of their fellow citizens. And they will use threats and violence to get their way.

It is important to recognize that these groups do not limit their aggressive intrusions to public lands. They also invade lands owned by private individuals who don't want motorized trespassers on their property. I learned this firsthand when I attempted to prevent motorized use of a creek bed on my family's property in Boulder County, Colorado.

In 1999, I posted "no motorized vehicles" signs along our creek. That spring, a group of 15 vehicles from the Denver-based Mile-Hi Jeep Club ignored my signs and drove through. The club's web site even reported that one vehicle dumped a crankcase load of oil into our creek.

So, that summer I did what the Forest Service did in Elko County. I blocked the trail. This was unacceptable to some members of the offroad club. They organized a "Barking Dog Shovel Brigade" led by local activist Vernon Brandt (who was later convicted of a felony for beating up an elderly man over his "right" to a parking space). The club removed my boulder and worked on an amateur road construction project on private land they had no right to enter.

Unlike the Forest Service, I didn't let it slide. I brought in another truckload of boulders. Later, I smacked down the vigilantes by prevailing in a lawsuit to keep trespassers off my land. Fourteen years later, the "road" is gone. The streamside wildflowers, grasses, willows, and aspen trees that were crushed under the ATV and Jeep tires have grown back. The Mile-Hi Jeep Club's oil slick is gone, and I have picked up most of their trash and vehicle parts.

We need federal agencies that are as willing to stand up to violent trespassing thugs and vigilante groups as I was. It is time to put pressure on the BLM and the Forest Service to uphold the law. After all, this land belongs to you and me.