A Utah county commissioner convicted by a jury last May for leading an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through a sensitive river canyon asked a federal court this week for a new trial based on the discovery of a decades-old map he claims proves the canyon was open to ATVs.
Attorneys for San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said the 1979 Bureau of Land Management map shows the commissioner and his followers were riding a valid highway under a 19th-century mining law.
Lyman faces up to two years behind bars and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and restitution for his role in the May 10, 2014, ride through Recapture Canyon to protest BLM’s management policies. The jury also convicted Lyman’s co-defendant, Monte Jerome Wells of Monticello, of the same counts of conspiracy and illegal operation of ATVs on public lands.
Both are set to be sentenced Sept. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.
Lyman’s attorneys filed a motion Tuesday asking the verdict be set aside, claiming that the BLM map offers "new evidence [that] would have changed the result sufficient to undermine confidence in the verdict."
"Newly discovered exculpatory evidence demonstrates that Mr. Lyman was on an R.S. 2477 right-of-way that could not be closed to off-road vehicles by the BLM," attorneys wrote.
Passed in 1866, the R.S. 2477 law allowed miners and homesteaders to build trails or roads over any public lands not yet reserved or claimed for private use. Congress repealed it in 1976 but said pre-existing R.S. 2477 rights must be honored. Utah is suing the government for the title to more than 14,000 roads on federal lands covering 35,000 miles.
It was not immediately clear how the BLM map proves a valid R.S. 2477 claim. The state of Utah earlier this month said it plans to add Recapture to its larger R.S. 2477 case.
Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R), who worked at BLM in Utah from the 1970s through the ’90s, wrote in an affidavit to the court this week that the map "identifies a public highway" through the entire length of the canyon, including the route ridden by Lyman.
Lyman’s ride was a protest of BLM’s decision in 2007 to close Recapture to off-highway vehicles to protect Native American areas, including Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years. The canyon is open to hikers and horseback riders.
Federal prosecutors this week told the court they recommend Lyman and Wells be sentenced to "a reasonable term of incarceration based on defendants’ willful conduct, their disrespect for the law and the need to deter similar criminal conduct." They also recommended a fine based on the defendants’ ability to pay and $96,000 in restitution for damage caused in the canyon.
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the Utah U.S. attorney’s office, said the government would respond to the defendants’ motion for a new trial in court.