SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A southern Utah county commissioner who became a cause celebre in the movement challenging the federal government’s management of Western public lands is set to find out Friday if he’ll get jail time for organizing an ATV protest ride through a closed canyon that is home to Native American cliff dwellings.
Federal prosecutors want San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to serve up to a year behind bars on his conviction on federal misdemeanors. They argue that he used his office to encourage people to break the law in the ride designed to protest what organizers called federal overreach in the closure of the canyon.
Attorneys for Lyman are asking a judge to sentence him to probation and community service rather than prison time. Lyman recognized recently in court documents that he made a mistake and wouldn’t do it again.
The protest ride took place in May 2014 in an idyllic spot called Recapture Canyon in the Four Corners region, about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
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Lyman and about 50 others rode their ATVs on a trail off-limits to vehicles in a canyon that cuts through ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old and home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago, before they disappeared. There were no confrontations during a ride meant to protest what the participants called the overreaching federal government.
Federal officials closed the Utah canyon to motorized vehicles in 2007 to protect the ancient dwellings, artifacts and burials. But the decision has long been a source of tension in the area among people like Lyman who say that it was improper and unnecessary.
The protest was organized shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over similar issues, illustrating the simmering tension between the federal government and residents in the West over land use.
Several Utah officials have supported Lyman’s stance, including a group of state lawmakers who publicly threw down wads of cash during a hearing this year to help pay for his legal defense.
The Utah Association of Counties named him county commissioner of the year, saying Lyman is committed to standing for something his colleagues believe in. Lyman returned the honor.
Lyman and blogger Monte Wells were found guilty by a jury in May of misdemeanor charges of illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Two others were acquitted.
Lyman has already been ordered to pay nearly $96,000 in restitution. In October, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ruled that Lyman is responsible for the cost of repairs workers made after the ride, including emergency stabilization work on soil torn up by ATVs and 3-D laser mapping to assess the canyon’s ancient archaeological sites.
Defense lawyers contended that Lyman stayed away from any sensitive areas on the ride, and that the government’s cost figures are inflated.