May 2015

Civil disobedience

Some of the most admired people in history engaged in civil disobedience to protest unjust laws and were quite willing to accept the consequences. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau quickly leap to mind. Mandela, for example, served more than two decades in prison to rid South Africa of apartheid. These true martyrs acknowledged they had broken the laws they believed unjust.

Does San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Phil Lyman belong in the same category? That’s open to debate.

Lyman and a blogger, Monte Wells, were recently convicted on two counts related to planning and participating in an illegal ATV ride in Recapture Canyon near Blanding in May 2014.

Because Lyman (and others) believed the BLM was wrong to have temporarily closed a portion of the Recapture Trail to motorized use, he decided to organize the ride to draw attention to what he sees as a general overreach by federal public-lands agencies. He spoke about the ride at county- commission meetings and promoted it on Facebook. Despite being warned that he and others could face civil and criminal penalties if they violated the closure, they did so anyway.

However, Lyman hedged his bets a bit by having an official with the San Juan Water Conservancy District, which has a right-of-way along much of the trail, grant “permission” for the riders to go down its part of the route that morning. Because the sole purpose of the water district’s easement is to maintain the pipeline, the jury apparently didn’t swallow the idea that Lyman and dozens of other ATV riders had legitimate authorization to violate the BLM’s closure.

There is blame for all sides involved in this sorry situation. There is certainly an argument to be made that the BLM should have made a decision long ago about the “temporary” closure of the trail. Lyman has pointed out that if the agency had just denied the county’s application for a right-of-way, the county would at least have had the option of challenging the decision. Instead, everyone is in limbo.

People complain that the BLM is heavy-handed, but in this instance its officials showed considerable restraint. They wisely arrested no one at the protest – which could have enflamed the crowd – instead issuing charges weeks later. Had they not charged anyone, they would have been granting tacit approval for people to break their laws willy-nilly.

Unfortunately, a long history of events leading up to the ride has put San Juan County and the BLM at odds, and whether the two can ever learn to work together is anyone’s guess. If someone feels strongly enough about the injustice of a law or of government behavior that he decides to engage in civil disobedience, he (or she) has to be willing to suffer the consequences. Lyman and Wells knew what they were doing; they knew they could be charged; they decided it was worth it. There seems little likelihood that they will be sent to jail, but they could face sizable fines.

They fought the law and the law won.