This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Phil Lyman, Monte Wells and their supporters will hear Friday what the pair's punishment will be for their ATV protest ride down San Juan County's Recapture Canyon, which federal land managers closed to motorized use to protect ancient American Indian sites.
Federal prosecutors are seeking an unspecified jail term for the misdemeanor convictions, while Lyman's supporters, which include prominent local and state political leaders across Utah, say the men have endured enough. Jail would make "no logical sense" for such civically engaged family men who pose no threat to society, supporters argued in letters to U.S. District Judge David Nuffer.
A jury convicted Lyman and Wells of conspiracy, which holds them accountable for the conduct of the many protesters who drove the length of the closed portion of the canyon, over eight archaeological sites and through sensitive riparian areas.
Lyman, a county commissioner and a Blanding accountant, organized the protest and led about 50 riders into the canyon, although he confined his ride to an existing road built in 1980s for servicing a pipeline below Recapture Dam. Wells, a former federal lawman and local blogger later appointed to the Monticello City Council, also drove in the canyon, but his crucial offense was promoting the ride on social media.
Lyman's supporters say he has been maligned in the news media and was singled out for prosecution in an attempt by federal authorities to slap down local elected leaders who stand up to the Bureau of Land Management. Federal agencies oversee most of the land in Utah's rural counties and tensions have flared in recent years over what local leaders complain is the BLM's undue deference to environmental groups.
A prison sentence would only worsen the tensions between the feds and rural Utahns who believe the BLM ignores their concerns and interests, Lyman's lawyer Peter Stirba argued in court papers.
"The court's decision will largely impact not only Mr. Lyman, but his constituents as well, at least in their perception of what is fundamentally fair in a case such as this. These citizens desperately want to believe in their government and its institutions; they already believe Mr. Lyman has been thoroughly punished and deterred," Stirba wrote in a sentencing memo. "A just, but merciful sentence by this court will be understood as a reflection of the judicial system's wisdom, and its inherent fairness and even-handedness."
Lyman's critics contend the commissioner's actions were a dangerous insult to the rule of law and a stiff sentence is necessary to deter future abuses by anti-federal activists. Neither man has accepted full responsibility, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Bennett.
"Incarceration will help promote respect for the law among defendants and those who joined them in the illegal ride. As shown ... at trial, the entire premise behind defendants' crimes was to violate the law to show their disapproval of BLM policies," wrote Bennett in the government's sentencing memo. "But defendants' showing of disrespect for the law went further because they entirely ignored all of the available legal options that they had to challenge BLM's decision to close Recapture Canyon and committed crimes instead."
It's not just federal prosecutors and environmentalists who allege Lyman crossed a line.
His predecessor in Blanding's county commission seat, Lynn Stevens, argues that Lyman himself owns some of the blame for BLM's failure to process the county's right-of-way through Recapture. Stevens believes trail conditions merited the 2007 closure, and, like many locals, grew frustrated after "months turned into years," according to a letter he wrote to the federal probation officers writing the sentencing reports.
"However, there is rarely a valid excuse to break laws and rules, and what Phil has done through his actions is to delay the process even longer," wrote Stevens, who has served as a key adviser to Utah governors on public-lands issues. "When he first took office [in 2010], he managed to create an antagonist relationship with the BLM, and ... it is not the way to get things done. ... Phil organized this protest to call attention to and make an example of the BLM, but in the end, an example needs to be made of him and his illegal actions."
Wells posted excerpts of this normally confidential document on his blog.
Friday's sentencing will likely not be the end of the road for the case, since the men are expected to appeal should they be ordered to jail. Lyman's supporters have for months railed against rulings by trial Judge Robert Shelby that barred Lyman from presenting evidence that BLM closed the canyon illegally, and later rulings by Nuffer rejecting motions to vacate the convictions and to grant a new trial. They also have alleged now-retired BLM state director Juan Palma manipulated Lyman into believing the feds would not prosecute protesters.
According to evidence at trial, however, the BLM established a clear record warning Lyman that protesters would face serious criminal and civil penalties if they drove in the canyon.
In a letter to Nuffer seeking lenience for Lyman, Blanding resident Pete Black argued Shelby had "a vested interest" in the trial's outcome yet lacked the honesty to recuse himself.
Shelby did recuse himself from sentencing and other post-trial matters after Lyman raised doubts about the judge's impartiality based on the Shelby family's friendship with the family of a lawyer associated with Utah's environmental community.
Several rural county commissioners, including San Juan's Bruce Adams, signed a letter asking for probation with conditions the court "deems constructive and necessary."
"While some of us may differ with Commissioner Lyman's judgment, we believe he has already been significantly punished as a result of the public convictions, his being financially crippled by his legal expense, and also being required to pay substantial restitution," the letter states. "He has done much good in his life for his family, for his community and represented all of the interests in San Juan County in a respectful and conscientious way."
Nuffer has already set restitution at $96,000, a sum that does not account for actual damage to archaeological resources. Rather, it covers the costly assessment of potential damage, as well as the cost of repairing erosion and rutting caused by the 32 riders who continued beyond the end of an existing road.