A Utah county commissioner faces up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine after a federal jury found him guilty of leading an illegal off-highway vehicle ride through Recapture Canyon nearly a year ago.
The jury convicted San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and co-defendant Monte Jerome Wells of Monticello of conspiracy and operating OHVs on public lands where they are barred. The two may also face restitution penalties if they caused damages to archaeological sites or the environment in the canyon east of Blanding.
Two other defendants, Shane Morris Marian of Monticello and Franklin Trent Holliday of Blanding, were acquitted of the same charges.
The verdicts marked a significant legal juncture in the West, where conservative groups have mounted a handful of high-profile challenges to the Bureau of Land Management’s jurisdiction over the federal estate.
Lyman’s May 10, 2014, ride — a protest against BLM’s closure of Recapture to OHVs to protect Native American sites — came one month after BLM’s near-violent standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had been grazing his cattle for decades in defiance of public land laws.
Bundy is yet to be charged by the government, and past OHV protest rides on public lands in Utah have gone unpunished. Lyman is among the first to face significant repercussions for challenging BLM’s domain.
A sentencing hearing was set for July 15.
"We were pleased with the jury’s decision finding San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Monte Wells guilty of both charged courts," said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office. "We were disappointed that the other two defendants were not convicted. However, we know the jury carefully considered the evidence we put on and we respect their decision."
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said the verdict supports protection of the nation’s archaeological heritage. Recapture Canyon, which is rich with Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years, is currently open only to hikers and horseback riders. San Juan County believes the canyon can be safely reopened to OHVs.
"These ancient dwellings and artifacts are essential for understanding the story of the earliest inhabitants of the American Southwest," Gorey said. "As Congress has directed, the BLM will continue to protect these resources while managing the public lands for multiple-use and sustained yield on behalf of all Americans."
The jury deliberated for several hours Friday before reading the verdicts at about 8:30 p.m. MDT, according to Rydalch.
The courtroom was full of family and supporters of the riders in addition to other stakeholders, according to the Associated Press. Wells, Marian and Holliday a week earlier had rejected plea deals from prosecutors, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Attorneys for Lyman could not be reached this morning.
At issue: a 7-mile road
The government called six witnesses at the four-day trial, including BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma and BLM special agent Brian Loftin, who is an expert in Internet communications and social media.
The defense called just one witness: San Juan Water Conservancy District water master Ferd Johnson.
The conservancy district owns a 50-foot-wide right of way to manage a pipeline through a portion of the canyon that is closed to OHVs. Johnson gave Lyman, Wells and the protesters permissions to operate OHVs on May 10, said Nathan Crane, an attorney for Wells
"We’re certainly disappointed with the verdict," Crane said. Wells had "appropriate permission" to ride through the canyon, Crane said.
Wells is a blogger who hyped Lyman’s May 10 ride through social media and videos, according to federal prosecutors. Lyman publicized the ride in an op-ed in the Deseret News and on Facebook. In April 2014, Lyman changed the date of the ride from a Thursday to a Saturday to allow more people to participate, prosecutors said.
Charges were filed last September in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah of "conspiracy to unlawfully operate off-road vehicles through the restricted area, namely Recapture Canyon, as a means of expressing opposition to the Bureau of Land Management and its management of Recapture Canyon."
Conservationists praised the charges, arguing the government needed to take a tougher stances against those who flout environmental laws. They cheered Friday’s verdict.
"We are grateful that the jury came to the right conclusion and convicted Commissioner Lyman and Mr. Wells," said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This confirms that no one is above the law and that there are consequences for illegal activities."
BLM closed the canyon in 2007 after two Utah men used picks, shovels and other tools to blaze an illegal 7-mile OHV trail through it, damaging ancient Anasazi and Pueblo ruins. The agency said there are 2,800 miles of other trails open to OHVs in southeast Utah.
About 50 people are reported to have ridden through Recapture last May, though it’s unclear how many entered the closed area.
The court will prepare a pre-sentence report for the defense and prosecution that lays out factors to be considered during sentencing, such as background on the case and the defendants’ criminal history, Rydalch said.
Neither side has decided what they will propose as the just punishment.