Recapture Canyon protesters found guilty in Utah

County commissioner and co-defendant face up to a year in jail for illegal ATV ride.

 

On May 1, a jury in federal court in Salt Lake City found San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Monte Wells, a blogger who also lives in San Juan County, Utah, guilty of conspiring to operate off-road vehicles on public lands closed to motorized vehicles, and of operating vehicles on said lands. Two other defendants were found not guilty.

The charges, filed last October, stemmed from a May 10, 2014, group ATV protest ride, organized by Lyman, down a closed-to-motorized-vehicles trail in Recapture Canyon in southeastern Utah. The prosecution leaned its case on media reports and social media posts leading up to the ride, and on widely disseminated post-ride photos clearly showing all four of the defendants riding ATVs in the closed area. The defense argued that the defendants had permission, from the county water master, to ride down the trail in question, which is used for water line inspections and maintenance.

  • Lyman, along with many of the other riders, particularly locals, only rode to the end of a right of way used for water line maintenance, but that is otherwise closed to motorized vehicles. Lyman's attorneys argued that since Lyman had the go-ahead from the county water master to go down the road, it was not an illegal act.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The May 10, 2014, Recapture Canyon ATV protest ride, organized and led by Phil Lyman, drew locals as well as people like this couple, from Provo, Utah, who had been at the Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, the month before.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was found guilty of two misdemeanor charges related to an ATV protest ride held in Blanding, Utah, last May.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • While Lyman and others stopped at the end of the water line road, Ryan Bundy and others continued down Recapture Canyon, along a more primitive trail where the potential for environmental and archaeological damage was higher. Neither Bundy nor any of those who proceeded down canyon were charged with crimes related to the ride.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Recapture Canyon is riddled with ancestral Puebloan sites, such as this one, prompting the closure to ATVs.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Lyman advertised the Recapture Canyon ride via newspaper articles and in Facebook posts such as this one, in which he implicitly invited the Bundy crew to attend.

    Jonathan Thompson

The protest ride’s genesis appears to have been a February 2014 community meeting, organized by Lyman to give locals an opportunity to air their concerns about perceived overreach by the federal government, particularly the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees much of the land in southeastern Utah. The county has long butted heads with the feds, but tensions climaxed in 2009, when heavily armed BLM agents raided homes and arrested citizens for pot-hunting (collecting ancient artifacts from the landscape, which is illegal on public land). The 2007 closure to ATVs of the trail in Recapture due to potential damage of archaeological sites has also been a local sore spot. And at the meeting, a participant suggested using Recapture as a “stage” on which to air their griefs.

Lyman announced plans for the ride in an op-ed in the Deseret News last April, even as Cliven Bundy and heavily armed supporters were in a southern Nevada showdown with BLM agents who had tried to round up Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on public land. So it was inevitable that in the days leading up to the ride it was touted as the “next Bunkerville,” the town closest to Bundy’s ranch, and as the latest flareup in this version of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Indeed, Lyman implicitly invited the Bundy crew to the ride via social media, and a contingent of the crew, including Bundy’s son, Ryan, accepted, showing up with ATVs, guns, Gadsen flags and a hearty dose of anger.

But the solidarity between the two crowds — and the comparison — only went so far. Prior to the ride, when Lyman was expected to be firing up the troops with defiant prose, he actually struck a more conciliatory tone, urging his followers to ride down the canyon only to the closure point, and stop there. “My fear is that this event is looking like conflict for the sake of conflict,” he said then. “I think we do more harm than good to actually cross that line today.”

It was a sharp contrast to what happened in Bunkerville, and reaction from the Bundy crowd in Blanding verged on the hostile. Lyman ultimately acquiesced to the bullies, to a degree, leading riders beyond the closure point but stopping at the end of the road used for pipeline maintenance. Ryan Bundy and a handful of others, mostly non-locals, continued onward onto a more primitive trail, where the chances for environmental and archaeological damage was much greater. It was an uncomfortable scene to behold, the leader of this act of civil disobedience ignored by a notably uncivil group.

It then became clear that, similar ideologies aside, Lyman was no Bundy, after all. Bundy broke the law for years, first failing to pay the pathetically low grazing fees for running his cattle on BLM land, then ignoring outright grazing prohibitions on the same land. Only when it came time to face the consequences did he play the protest card as a cover for his unlawful acts. Lyman’s act, on the other hand, was one of civil disobedience, first, and lawbreaking second. Bundy’s civil disobedience was in service of his illegal act; it was the other way around for Lyman. And, of course, Bundy has yet to be charged with anything, despite his obvious crimes and the sheer incivility of his “civil disobedience.”

In that respect, perhaps it makes more sense to compare Lyman to Tim DeChristopher, the activist who bid on (and won) oil and gas leases that he never planned on paying for, in order to keep them from falling into industry hands.

After DeChristopher's trial, in which he was found guilty of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements, DeChristopher said:

“This is really the heart of what this case is about. The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law. Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law … (the prosecution) claims that the seriousness of my offense was that I ‘obstructed lawful government proceedings.’ But the auction in question was not a lawful proceeding.”

While Lyman’s defense didn’t rely on such a thesis, he has argued that the Recapture trail was closed unlawfully and that the BLM has committed “unconscionable” acts in San Juan County. And in the days leading up to the protest, Lyman’s rhetoric was every bit as lofty as DeChristopher’s. In the aforementioned February meeting, he told the crowd that they needed to “send a message that we do live here, that this is not a remote, desolate place, but it’s actually our home.” The guilty verdict, Lyman told the Salt Lake Tribune after the trial, "is a shout-out to county officials that they do not have jurisdiction in their counties. It is a federal jurisdiction state, or a territory. I don't know if you can call it a state.” In the op-ed announcing the ride, he quoted Thomas Paine and Henry David Thoreau, the grandfather of American civil disobedience, who went to jail for not paying taxes that support slavery and war.

Thoreau — a naturalist — might have rolled in his grave if he knew his words were being used as a rallying cry in the fight for the liberty to ride one’s ATV wherever one chooses, and to get the federal government off of industry’s back. And surely DeChristopher, whose civil disobedience was a last-ditch attempt to slow the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, thus averting global catastrophe, might also balk at the comparison. But that Lyman’s ride was an act of civil disobedience, that he broke the law, mostly in a peaceable manner (Bundy’s armed hangers-on notwithstanding) as a means to bringing attention to a higher ideal, is clear.

But again, the comparison only goes so far. Neither Thoreau nor DeChristopher tried to deny that they had broken the law. Rather, they argued that they had to break the law, and in doing so chose a lesser wrong in order to try to prevent a larger one. The illegal nature of their acts, the disobedience, and the stiff consequences thereof are what gave the acts power. Lyman seemed to embrace this notion in the weeks leading up to the ride, knowing that a bunch of people carrying signs and legally riding up and down an open county road would be meaningless. But the defense in his trial abandoned the initial principles behind the act. In attempting to dodge the punishment, Lyman also succeeded in weakening the power of his protest. Perhaps that’s why there were no protests at the courthouse, as there were during DeChristopher’s trial; the Oath Keepers and so-called militia and patriots appear to have abandoned Lyman, who just a year ago seemed poised to lead the new Sagebrush Rebellion.

Lyman’s backpedaling didn’t save him, obviously, and now he’ll have to face the consequences. DeChristopher spent nearly two years in jail, and had to pay a hefty fine. Lyman and Wells each face up to as much as one year in jail and $100,000 in fines. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15. Whatever the punishment, Lyman’s message will be better received if he follows Thoreau’s lead and embraces the punishment. Thoreau was thrown behind bars for an indefinite period of time, only to be bailed out by his buddies, much to his chagrin, after one night. When Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied: “Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?”

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Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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