A jury convicted a southern Utah county commissioner and a blogger and acquitted two others accused of knowingly breaking the law during an ATV protest ride last year through a canyon home to Native American cliff dwellings.
The jury on Friday found San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and blogger Monte Wells guilty of misdemeanor charges of illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Each carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100,000. Sentencing is set for July 15.
Prosecutors said Lyman and the others knew the trail was off-limits to ATVs. Defense attorneys countered that the men had permission from a local water district official.
“Today’s verdict underscores the importance of protecting the nation’s irreplaceable archaeological treasures. These ancient dwellings and artifacts are essential for understanding the story of the earliest inhabitants of the American Southwest,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tom Gorey said in a statement. “As Congress has directed, the BLM will continue to protect these resources while managing the public lands for multiple-use and sustained yield on behalf of all Americans.”
The courtroom was packed Friday during closing arguments, with family and supporters of the riders as well as others interested in a story that generated widespread interest. The May 2014 ride came shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a confrontation 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.
The ride was done to protest what the participants considered government overreach. Residents in the area say they have used the ATV trail for generations, and that the Bureau of Land Management had no right to close the trail in 2007 to motorized vehicles.
About 50 people 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 is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago before they disappeared. There were no confrontations.
Prosecutor Jared Bennett of the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah said Lyman was the ringleader for a public protest ride where participants had no doubt they were breaking the law. Lyman and the others were warned on multiple occasions by Bureau of Land Management officials that the trail was closed and that they would face consequences, Bennett said.
Lyman even changed the date of the ride from a Thursday to Saturday to get more participants, Bennett said. He pointed the jury to an email Lyman sent Bureau of Land Management state director Juan Palma asking Palma to make legal an illegal ride.
“Why would you have to ask BLM to make something legal if it wasn’t illegal?” Bennett said. “This wasn’t an accident. They acted knowing this was a violation of the law.”
Defense attorney Nathan Crane, Wells’ lawyer, said the openness in which Lyman promoted the ride proves he believed they weren’t doing anything wrong. He pointed out that federal agents testified during trial that they knew about the ride ahead of time.
“Normally, if you are conspiring to break the law, you don’t tell the feds,” Crane said.
They rode the part of the trail that San Juan Water Conservancy District water master Ferd Johnson said they could take their ATVs on, Crane said.
Jared Stubbs, Lyman’s attorney, told the jury to remember that Palma acknowledged under oath during trial that he told Lyman by phone there wouldn’t be any arrests for the ride. Palma clarified during his testimony that he meant no arrests would occur the day of the ride, and that his words were not an approval for the illegal ride.
Attorneys for Marian and Holliday argued their clients participated because they were following the lead of a trusted public official and believed Lyman had permission.
Bennett told the jury not to buy that theory, saying all four men willingly participated. He said they didn’t get whisked away into something they didn’t know about.
“They had seven miles to think about it,” Bennett said. “This was not a mistake. This was not an accident.”