Anti-federal protesters join San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on an illegal ride through Recapture Canyon on May 10, 2014.
Anti-federal protesters join San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on an illegal ride through Recapture Canyon on May 10, 2014.

In late September, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and four others with conspiracy to operate off-road vehicles (ORVs) on public lands closed to ORV use, as well as knowingly and wilfully operating an ORV through the restricted area of Recapture Canyon.  The charges stem from a May 10th “protest” ride awash in pseudo-militia posturing and anti-government chest-thumping.  Each count carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100,000.

The archaeological record left behind in Recapture reveals that the canyon was occupied for at least 2,000 years.  In 2007, the BLM closed the canyon to ORV use after determining that an illegally constructed ORV trail led through several prehistoric archaeological sites, and that construction of the trail and subsequent ORV use were damaging significant and irreplaceable cultural sites.  Although Recapture Canyon was closed to motorized use in 2007, it remains open to the public use for walking, hiking and horseback riding.

Criminal Charges
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is continuing its investigation, and we are hopeful that charges will be filed against others that participated in Commissioner Lyman’s illegal ORV event in the closed area.  In addition, we expect that, if warranted, criminal charges will be pursued under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

However, as a Sept. 18th Salt Lake Tribune editorial put it, “. . . here’s betting that Lyman and the four others charged . . . won’t spend a single day in an orange jumpsuit. . . . [D]oes anyone really believe that the politically connected defendants face any real possibility of incarceration?”  The editorial compared Lyman’s behavior with that of Tim DeChristopher who filed fake bids on energy leases to protest their sale.  He served 21 months in prison for his protest.  DeChristopher knew what he was doing, he did it to make his statement and he accepted the consequences.

Lyman, in unflattering contrast, is trotting around southern Utah complaining about having been charged with conspiracy at all.  There’s no condoning an illegality.  But if it aims to make a principled statement, that purpose is more admirably served by quiet courage than by public whining.  It will also be interesting to see whether our justice system puts a higher value on energy company convenience and profit than on the nation’s heritage.

If the Tribune’s editors are right and no one involved in the Recapture outrage pays a price for their behavior, it will merely embolden other vigilantes to acts of vandalism and outright defiance of the BLM’s authority to enforce laws enacted to protect our public lands and cultural heritage.  We remain hopeful, but we’re not betting on the outcome.

—Liz Thomas

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2014 issue)