Judge orders ATV protest ride organizers to pay $95K in damages

Judge orders ATV protest ride organizers to pay $95K in damages

(Alan Neves/KSL-TV/File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge Wednesday ordered San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to pay for damage to a closed southern Utah canyon caused during an illegal ATV protest ride.

Lyman and Monticello City Councilman Monte Wells were hit with a $95,955.61 bill for assessing and repairing riparian areas and archeological sites in Recapture Canyon. The two men were earlier convicted of conspiring to organize and lead at least 32 others over a road that is off limits to motorized vehicles.

"A person who lights a fire is responsible for the consequences of the fire," said U.S. District Judge David Nuffer.

Lyman and Wells declined to comment as they hurriedly left the courthouse.

Prosecutor Jared Bennett said federal restitution law warrants that the two pay for the damage.

"It's like if you have a kid who throws a party at your house that's not supposed to, and yet your friends come in a trash the house. Your kid's still accountable for it," he said after the hearing.

Bennett told the judge the ATV riders trampled vegetation, churned up dirt and left 4- to 10-inch deep ruts in the canyon.

The Bureau of Land Management paid a contractor $65,500 to assess the damage, including the use of 3-D laser scanners to look at underground archeological sites and pack animals to carry in equipment. It spent another $30,000 for "emergency stabilization" and other BLM field work.

Defense attorneys called the restitution amount speculative and excessive. They argued in court that the government had no proof Lyman and Wells caused any damage.

Photo: Alan Neves/KSL-TV
Photo: Alan Neves/KSL-TV

Nearly all of the damage the government cited took place in an area where the two did not go, though others who were never identified did ride their ATVs, they said.

"We do not know who caused the damage," said Nathan Crane, who represents Wells.

The canyon had lots of heavy use, including by a gold miner with trucks and bulldozers, long before the May 2014 protest ride, and there was nothing to prevent people from driving in it afterward, he said.

The BLM closed the canyon to off-road vehicle use in 2007, citing damage to cultural artifacts in the area, but let other authorized uses continue on some sections, such as use by the San Juan County Water Conservancy District. Many locals objected to closure, asserting it was arbitrary and unnecessary, and thwarted a review process mandated by federal law.

Lyman and Wells organized the ride to protest federal land management policy.

Prosecutors will now ask the judge to put the two men behind bars and impose fines for the misdemeanors crimes. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 18.

Under a federal sentencing formula, prosecutors calculated that Lyman should receive a 10- to 16-month prison term, but noted the maximum sentence is 12 months. They recommend he pay a $3,000 to $30,000 fine.

That Lyman was the "ring leader" and abused his position as a county commissioner to organize and promote the ride were factored into the suggested sentence, according to court documents.

Prosecutors recommend Wells spend six to 12 months in prison and pay a fine ranging from $2,000 to $20,000.


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