San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was found guilty concerning the May 10, 2014 protest of the Recapture Canyon closure. The event in question was held in protest of the 2007 closure by the BLM of portions of the canyon to motorized traffic. 

Lyman and Monticello resident Monte Wells, along with two other men, were tried for their actions in a four-day jury trial held previously this year. Lyman and Wells were convicted on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy and driving on public lands closed to motorized access. The two other San Juan County men were acquitted. 

Each of the convictions could include up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. While numerous motions by defense and prosecution have delayed the issue, their final sentencing was scheduled for September 15 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake. 

But what has happened since then, according to the old saying, has just been a ‘goat rodeo!’

Federal Judge Robert Shelby, the presiding judge over the trial, recused himself on August 28 from further proceedings in the matter. This was after the jury verdict and before sentencing!

At issue is the judge’s relationship with Southern Utah Wilderness Association’s (SUWA) lead legal counsel Stephen Bloch. Lyman’s attorney filed a motion that Shelby should be disqualified because of a long friendship with Block, and Block’s wife, who practiced law with the judge in a private firm for nine years. 

The response from Judge Shelby was that he wasn’t aware of any SUWA involvement, since they weren’t a party in the case, even though SUWA was involved in the discovery portion of the case and had been actively seeking the maximum penalties for all of the participants. About a month after the verdict, Shelby disclosed his close personal friendship to Bloch in a meeting with attorneys and public officials involved in the Kane and Garfield County road cases. Shelby stated that he wasn’t going to recuse himself in the road title cases. He did in fact change his mind and recused himself at the same time he reviewed himself in the Lyman case. Shelby stated he was unaware during the trial that SUWA and other environmental organizations were active in the case until they submitted letters seeking to influence Shelby’s sentencing decisions. 

Then on August 25, Lyman’s attorneys filed a motion requesting a new trial for their client. Their argument revolves around newly discovered evidence suggesting that Lyman was on an RS2477 right of way that could not be closed to off-road vehicles and that the U.S. Attorney erroneously claimed to the court that a Title V road (which doesn’t exist in BLM records) was granted to the water district to maintain the Recapture Pipeline. 

Their argument is that the government didn’t disclose evidence of the RS2477 right of way under the Brady laws. The Utah State Public Lands Policy Office also filed a Notice of Intent to sue the Secretary of Interior for quiet title on the Recapture Canyon County Road. 

Utah State District Representative Mike Noel, a public lands and RS2477 activist, provided his personal affidavit to the court that the Recapture Canyon road qualifies as a public highway and that neither Lyman nor anyone on the ride broke any federal laws. “This case against Commissioner Lyman by the BLM and the DOJ to illegally close thousands of RS2477 roads across the state and then play hide the ball when the state and counties try to bring quiet title actions against them. They are being very duplicitous,” said Noel, “they say we can’t sue for title because there is no case or controversy on thousands of RS2477 roads, and then they unilaterally try to close them down. Our witnesses are dying, expenses are rising and our own government uses intimidation against elected officials to send a chilling message to everyone that we will go after you if you dare to challenge our authority.”

Noel stressed that no state funding had been used to defend Lyman! “We have been able to gather thousands of dollars from individuals around the state, including $10,000 from Governor Herbert and monies from LG Cox and Speaker Hughes.”

Lyman was with a large group of people at the rally in Blanding before some people continued traveling through portions of the canyon. Lyman and over 200 protestors stayed on the Recapture RS2477 claimed county road past the closed boundary, and continued down the canyon on the improved Recapture Canyon road, part of which has been used since 1986 by the water district for pipeline maintenance. 

“The federal government argued that the road Lyman and the 200 riders drove on was a Title V road subject to BLM jurisdiction, which is not supported by the BLM Master Title Plats, nor the BLM case file for the pipeline which calls the road an RS2477 road, not a part of the document granted,” said Noel. “Phil and Monte need a new trial to present this evidence that was suppressed by the DOJ and would negate the trespass charges,” said Noel. 

“If the road is found to be an RS2477 road, the whole trespass argument becomes moot and Phil is exonerated,” said Noel. “No evidence on RS2477 roads was allowed to be heard by the jury on a pre-trial ruling by Shelby. Had this evidence been provided to jurors,” said Noel, “there is no question there would have been a not guilty verdict rendered.”