Five face federal charges over ride through protected Utah canyon

By Jennifer Dobner
Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner, drives his all-terrain vehicle in Recapture Canyon outside Blanding, Utah, in this May 10, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/Files

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors in Utah filed criminal charges on Wednesday against five men who allegedly organized and led an all-terrain vehicle protest ride into a red-rock desert canyon closed to motorized use by federal land managers.

About 300 protesters participated in the May ride through Recapture Canyon, where officials are trying to protect numerous Native American archaeological sites including ancient rock art, dwellings and other artifacts.

The demonstration near the southeastern Utah community of Blanding was part of a push-back by protesters against federal control of public lands across the West.

The five men are charged in U.S. District Court with one count each of conspiracy and operation of an off-road vehicle on closed public lands. Each misdemeanor charge carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. An initial court appearance is set for Oct. 17 in Salt Lake City. 

One of those charged, 50-year-old Phillip Lyman of Blanding, Utah, is a San Juan County commissioner.

The county has long battled the Bureau of Land Management over trail access and had proposed the establishment of a public right-of-way through the canyon in exchange for other property.

In 2007, the BLM closed the canyon to motor vehicles after discovering an illegally cut trail and damage to artifact sites that were thought to be about 2,000-years-old. No decision has been issued on the county's proposal for a right-of-way.

A telephone message for Lyman was not immediately returned on Wednesday. 

Charging documents allege that beginning in February, Lyman and the others conspired to organize and promote the illegal ride by sharing information on social media sites and conducting interviews with media outlets that encouraged members of the public to participate. 

Prosecutors also contend that all five men "committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy" by riding ATVs into the canyon's restricted area. 

At a rally in Blanding before the ride, Lyman told supporters he was not a proponent of lawbreaking, and that no one should feel compelled to ride into restricted areas. 

He said later he stopped short of riding into the closed area and found on a return visit to the canyon no signs of disturbance or damages.

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)