Utah official gets 10 days behind bars in ATV protest ride
Dec. 18, 2015
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 avoided a long prison sentence but was given three years' probation and a $1,000 fine in addition to $96,000 he was already ordered to pay for damage caused by the ride.
In explaining his ruling, 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.
"This was a highly publicized, well-planned action," he said. "It caused considerable disruption and damage."
The hearing shined a bright light on the long-simmering tensions in Utah and the West between rural residents and the federal government. After delivering the sentence, Nuffer told a packed courtroom that he considered the entire situation a tragedy, and he implored people on all sides to ratchet down the emotion and seek sensible solutions.
Nuffer, the chief federal judge in Utah who has lived in rural parts of the state, said he was dramatically impacted by court documents brimming with distrust, hostility, fear, arrogance, allegations of evil motives, hyperbole, entrenchment and a refusal to listen to other arguments. He got choked up during a speech in which he said there's been a mythology created around the case only half-rooted in facts.
"Can we reduce the bitterness and the battle and conflict?" said Nuffer. "Can the values our mothers and kindergarten teachers taught us come back to us now? Can we stop emulating the people we see on TV and the national politicians?"
Lyman, a married father of five who works as an accountant in the small town of Blanding, Utah, declined to comment after the hearing, but his attorney, Peter Stirba, said his client was happy it's over and thanked the judge for a thoughtful decision. They haven't decided about an appeal.
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. He didn't explicitly apologize but said he regrets telling reporters after the May trial verdict that he would do it again.
"This was not an anti-government rally," Lyman said. "I love the federal government. I love the BLM."
Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber said he was satisfied with the sentence, saying 10 days in jail is enough to send a message that his office will prosecute all violations of federal law — no matter where a person falls on the political spectrum. Federal prosecutors had asked for a reasonable term behind bars, saying the financial penalties weren't enough.
"You can't poke law and order in the eye and expect reasonably that nothing will come of it," Huber said. "He made a choice, and as we're taught from the earliest stages of our lives, with every choice comes consequences."
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. 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.
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 decision to block vehicles in the area has long been a source of tension, with Lyman and other calling it improper and unnecessary.
The protests in Utah and Nevada showcased the strain 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 pursue 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.
Lyman's lawyer 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."
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. One stipulation of both men's probation is that Lyman cannot advocate for violations of federal land use laws.
Huber said he's hopeful the conviction and sentence deters others thinking of staging similar protests, and he backed Nuffer's call for more civility. He said much of the mythology around the case has been fueled by misinformed diatribes.
"Our hope is that Judge Nuffer's words are heard and that we can dial down the rhetoric," Huber said. "The caution we received today is that we need to be careful about the views we have and how we developed them. They need to be founded in reality."