Utah official gets 10 days behind bars in ATV protest ride

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Posted: Dec 18, 2015 3:41 PM
Utah official gets 10 days behind bars in ATV protest ride

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah county commissioner who became a cause celebre in a movement challenging federal management of Western public lands was sentenced Friday to 10 days in jail for organizing an ATV protest ride through a closed canyon that is home to Native American cliff dwellings.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman also got three years' probation and a $1,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors had asked for a reasonable term behind bars, while the defense said the $96,000 in restitution that's already been ordered was punishment enough.

During the hearing, Lyman held back tears and paused frequently to gather his thoughts as he told the judge he's a reasonable man who has been pained by the judicial resources spent on his case.

"This was not an anti-government rally," Lyman said. "I love the federal government. I love the BLM."

He didn't explicitly apologize but said he regrets telling reporters after the May trial verdict that he would do it again.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said he's familiar with the deep feelings and concerns on both sides of the federal land management debate — but the protest ride was a significant violation.

"I saw this was a highly publicized, well-planned action," he said. "It caused considerable disruption and damage. It was a serious event, serious occurrence and did serious damage to the area."

Prosecutors said in the packed courtroom that Lyman must be punished with jail time because a fine would simply be paid by his supporters.

"We have an individual who knew what he was doing was illegal and then used his political office to recruit others to join in the illegality," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Bennett said.

Lyman's lawyers said he was trying to draw attention to legitimate problems with the Bureau of Land Management's 2007 decision to close the canyon to motorized vehicles.

"He didn't damage anything. He didn't threaten anybody. It was a peaceful ride, as he wanted it to be," said attorney Peter Stirba, adding Lyman knows he made a mistake.

"For crying out loud, this is a misdemeanor trespass case. It has gotten way out of control," Stirba said.

The ride took place in May 2014 in an idyllic spot called Recapture Canyon in the Four Corners region, about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

Lyman and about 50 others rode their ATVs on a trail that was declared off-limits to vehicles to protect ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old. The canyon is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago, before they disappeared.

The decision to block vehicles in the area has long been a source of tension, with Lyman and other calling it improper and unnecessary.

The protest was organized shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a standoff with the BLM over similar issues. Prosecutors said Lyman recruited people for his ride who had taken up arms in that faceoff.

The cases illustrated the simmering tension between the federal government and residents in the West over land use. Disagreements over grazing, drilling and protecting rare animals on the range have led several states to push for more control over vast swathes of federally owned land.

A group of conservative Utah lawmakers recently voted to urge the Legislature to sue for control of federal land. The case could cost up to $14 million, and the attorney general hasn't decided if he'll take it.

Against that backdrop, several Utah officials have stepped up to support Lyman's stance, including Gov. Gary Herbert.

State lawmakers threw down wads of cash to help pay for his legal defense during a public hearing. The Utah Association of Counties named Lyman county commissioner of the year, though he returned the honor.

A jury found Lyman and local blogger Monte Wells guilty of illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy in May. Wells was sentenced to five days in jail and three years of probation.

The two were ordered to pay the $96,000 in restitution to cover the cost of repairs made after the ride, including emergency stabilization work on soil torn up by ATVs and 3-D laser mapping to assess the canyon's ancient archaeological sites.

Defense lawyers contended Lyman stayed away from any sensitive areas on the ride, and the government's cost figures are inflated.