Convicted by a jury of two misdemeanors related to a protest ATV ride last year, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman says the ride got so out of hand that he does not believe it accomplished what he had originally intended.
“It changed so much,” he said by phone from Blanding the weekend after a jury in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City found him and another county resident, Monte Wells, guilty of conspiracy and of riding a motorized vehicle in a closed area on public lands. “The initial idea was to tell the BLM, ‘We want action, we’re tired of waiting. We’re going to ride that trail’.”
The protest was related to the BLM’s 2007 closure (to motorized uses) of part of a seven-mile trail through nearby Recapture Canyon, which was done on a temporary basis but had continued for seven years. Lyman had organized an ATV ride into the canyon, promoting it on social media after a town-hall meeting at which attendees agreed it was a good idea. He wrote about it in a column in the Deseret News and later expressed disappointment that the paper had taken out his open invitation to people to join in the event.
The trail is open to motorized travel at its northern end, which is adjacent to Recapture Dam just outside Blanding. Several miles further on, it is closed by the BLM, but there is a portion for which the San Juan Water Conservancy District has a right-of-way to maintain an irrigation pipeline. Beyond that, the route turns into a narrow footpath.
On the morning of May 10, 2014, with hundreds of people in Blanding ready to ride motorized vehicles into the canyon, Lyman said he’d already decided to tell them not to go on the narrow, overgrown portion of the trail. “We basically called off the ride,” he said. “That’s why we stayed on the county road.”
He said – and defense attorneys argued in court – that the riders had been given permission by a representative of the water district to ride on its right-of-way. However, the prosecution said that easement was solely for the purposes of maintaining the pipeline, and the jury apparently agreed.
Lyman said he believed they did have the right to travel that part of the trail. “The water conservancy easement is a valid easement,” he said.
He and many other riders turned around at the end of the “pipeline road,” but others ventured further, running ATVs over vegetation. Lyman told the Free Press there were provocateurs in the crowd urging people on, taunting them, even carrying intentionally misspelled signs in support of the ride. “There were a lot of undercover organizations there,” he said. “That was so unfair. That wasn’t Blanding’s protest. We’re very law-abiding, normal, and peaceful and most of all we value the resources.”
He said he tried to talk to some sign-carrying people in the crowd that he didn’t recognize, but they were “evasive.” A right-wing radio talk-show host with the Guerilla Media Network, Pete Santilli, was in the crowd stirring people up, Lyman said.
“It did not accomplish what I intended,” he said. “For the most part it was called off, the trail part of it. . . .I think the protest and rally got a lot of attention. It certainly got swept away in places. I could see that it was going to happen but I apparently couldn’t contain it.”
Although the ATV ride happened a month after a tense standoff in Nevada between the BLM and rancher Cliven Bundy over his failure to pay grazing fees, the Recapture protest “was not planned on the heels” of that incident but well before it. However, the Bundy incident sparked widespread interest in the Utah ride and a number of outsiders showed up, including one of Bundy’s sons as well as national media.
Lyman said despite his changing the plan and telling people not to ride the closed part of the trail, “by that morning it was just really evident that there’s some people that really wanted to commandeer this event and turn it into something it really wasn’t.”
The Recapture closure itself was not supposed to be the focus of the protest, he said. “Recapture was just the venue, just a platform.” The real issue was “the way BLM deals with issues in San Juan County.”
Lyman reiterated that people are frustrated with the seven-year-old “temporary” closure. If the agency would just make a decision — even if it decided to permanently close the route to motorized use — it would at least allow the county an opportunity to challenge the decision, he said.
Since the protest, the BLM has taken action on some other trail issues including one in Indian Creek, Lyman said, and he believes the ATV ride prompted that flurry of action.
Lyman said he is relieved that two other men charged with him and Wells were acquitted by the jury but is disappointed by Wells’ conviction for conspiracy. They are to be sentenced July 15 and could face up to one year in jail and $100,000 in fines on each count.
“Things are going to end badly for me, obviously,” Lyman said.
Interviewed on a Sunday night, he was preparing to attend a meeting of the San Juan County commission the following day, but said he is concerned his conviction will affect his ability to do his job.
“Ethically I have a dilemma,” he said. “I guess my dilemma is, to be a commissioner right now the prudent thing is to do less and stay out of issues to do with jurisdictional conflicts. Yet I feel like that is the job of a commissioner.
“If I put something on my commissioner [Facebook] page and someone shares it or likes it, they’re charged with conspiracy. I can’t really function in that environment.”