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A San Juan County commissioner and four other local men pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that they "conspired" to promote an illegal motorized incursion into Recapture Canyon, which the Bureau of Land Management closed in 2007 to protect its sites inhabited by ancient American Indians.
On May 10, about 50 people rode ATVs into the canyon east of Blanding after a rally led by Phil Lyman, a Blanding commissioner and accountant and outspoken critic of federal oversight of Utah's public lands. Riders were protesting what they believe was an illegal closure of an historic "highway."
Also making initial court appearances before U.S. Magistrate Evelyn Furse were Monte Wells, Shane Marian, Franklin Trent Holliday and Jay Redd. Last month, acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen charged them with "operation of off-road vehicles on public lands closed to vehicles" and conspiracy, offenses that carry a punishment of up to one year in jail and $100,000 in fines.
About 60 family members and supporters for the defendants overfilled the Salt Lake City federal courtroom Friday. After the five men entered their not-guilty pleas, a two-day trial was set for Dec. 22.
Most of the defendants left the courthouse Friday without commenting to reporters. Holliday said he has "no regrets" about the rally.
"Seems a little crazy," Holliday said of the charges. "A little excessive."
Defense attorney Nathan Crane, who represents Wells, said after the court hearing that they look forward to presenting their case.
"These are God-fearing Americans who want to enjoy the great outdoors," he said. "And there's basically the great outdoors right there outside their back door."
Redd, who rode into the canyon as a passenger, is the son of the late James Redd, the Blanding physician who took his life five years ago after his arrest in an BLM investigation into artifacts trafficking.
BLM officials restricted motorized access in the canyon after unauthorized trail construction damaged several archaeological sites. San Juan County's efforts to win a right-of-way through the canyon have since stalled for years.
None was charged with damaging federally protected cultural resources, but prosecutors said the investigation remains open. Prosecutors said in court Friday that restitution may be sought in the case but did not give a specific number.
The conspiracy allegations highlight Lyman's and Redd's remarks at the pre-ride rally, which prosecutors allege show the men encouraged protestors to ride in the canyon. But a recording of the event depicts a more nuanced story.
Redd's address, for example, focused on remembrances of his late father and his family's resentment of the BLM for what they see as a trumped-up case against him.
Not charged, meanwhile, were any of the armed out-of-state anti-federal activists who joined the protest out of solidarity with the Blanding riders' disgust with the BLM.
Some of these participants, including renegade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's son, Ryan, also addressed the pre-ride rally.
After Lyman suggested protesters riders stay off the closed part of the canyon, these speakers angrily exhorted the crowd to stay the course.
"I came here to open a road," Bundy shot back. "If we don't open it, then we might as well go home right now."
Others clamored that riding in the canyon is legal and denounced BLM police.
"You've got guns, too, by God. That's what they're for," another man yelled.