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SALT LAKE CITY — San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman admits he erred in leading an illegal ATV ride in a closed southern Utah canyon to protest federal land management practices, according to newly filed court documents.
"He concedes he made a mistake, or a mistake in judgment, which now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, he would not make again," one of his attorneys, Jeffrey Mann, wrote.
Whether the concession helps keep Lyman out of prison is up to U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, who is scheduled to sentence him and Monticello City Councilman Monte Wells on Dec. 18.
Both were convicted earlier this year on misdemeanor trespassing charges for organizing and leading the May 2014 ride in Recapture Canyon near Blanding.
Mann argues that Lyman should be sentenced to probation and community service, saying he has already been "vigorously prosecuted, convicted, publicly embarrassed and ridiculed." Wells' attorney, Nathan Crane, argues in court documents for probation and restitution.
"Mr. Lyman recognizes that he should have exercised greater restraint and patience with the Bureau of Land Management, rather than engaging in a protest," Mann wrote. "He has already been severely penalized for his actions — far beyond what he ever imagined."
Federal prosecutors don't see it that way, and recommend Lyman spend at least 10 months in prison, pay a $3,000 to $30,000 fine and split $96,000 in restitution with Wells. They recommend Wells serve at least six months in prison and pay a $2,000 to $20,000 fine. The maximum penalty for the crime is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. attorney Jared Bennett contends prison is warranted "given the nature of their offenses, their disrespect for the law and the need for deterring similar criminal acts."
Lyman and Wells, both 51, could have used other means to express their displeasure with the BLM, including calling upon elected representatives, grass-roots political movements, lawful protests, Bennett wrote. Instead, the men "chose crime."
Bennett notes that both are elected officials. Lyman, he said, used his official title, email and letterhead, and county commission meetings to promote his "upcoming crime."
The BLM closed Recapture Canyon to off-road vehicle use in 2007, citing damage to cultural artifacts in the area, but it let other authorized uses continue on some sections, such as use by the San Juan County Water Conservancy District. Many locals objected to the closure, asserting it was arbitrary and unnecessary, and thwarted a review process mandated by federal law.
The case has caused tension in San Juan County between residents and the BLM, and sending Lyman to prison would only exacerbate those circumstances, Mann argues.
"The citizens of San Juan County have been hoping for some understanding, and recognition of their legitimate local interests," he wrote. "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."
Lyman is a well-respected commissioner, CPA and father of five children, according to Mann. He has deep roots in San Juan County, and he and his ancestors have been tied to Recapture Canyon for generations. Mann describes Lyman as a model citizen who has no criminal history.
Crane describes Wells as a loving, caring father of six who is devoted to his community. He volunteers with the Boy Scouts of America and the local search and rescue team. He has worked as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, a police officer in Colorado and reserve deputy in Idaho.
Bennett contends it's those personal characteristics that strengthen the need for prison. Lyman and Wells know what the law means and how to follow it, he wrote.
"The fact that they conspired to and actually rode through a canyon that they knew was closed to motorized use reflects a deliberate departure from what they knew to be right," he said.