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Utah won't put up money to defend commissioner's illegal ATV ride

But elected officials offer thousands of their own dollars toward an appeal

SALT LAKE CITY — San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman won't get state money to appeal his conviction for an illegal ATV protest ride in a closed southern Utah canyon.

But he will have private donations for his case — should he choose to use them — including a $10,000 check from Gov. Gary Herbert.

During a spirited meeting of the state's Constitution Defense Council on Wednesday, including an hour behind closed doors, the Utah Association of Counties withdrew a request for $100,000 for Lyman's appeal.

But several elected officials from rural Utah started the Lyman defense fund on the spot, pulling hundreds of dollars from their pockets and piling it on a table in what Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, called political theater at its finest.

"The state will be looking at the road issue independent of Commissioner Lyman and the trespass issue, although they're related. If the road was closed illegally, then there was no trespass," Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who chairs the council, said after the meeting.

Rather than muddle the two issues, it made sense to fund Lyman's appeal privately, Cox said, adding he would contribute $1,000 and Herbert would give $10,000. He said attorneys for the state told the council there was no precedent for providing funds in a criminal case, leaving the state in "no man's land" and open to a likely lawsuit.

Republican members of the council believe the Bureau of Land Management did not properly close a section of Recapture Canyon near Blanding in 2007 and that Lyman was wrongfully prosecuted for leading a protest ride there last year.

Many locals objected to the closure, asserting it was arbitrary and unnecessary and ignored a review process mandated by federal law. San Juan County has sought right-of-way access in the canyon, a decision that has been pending for more than seven years.

Utah has ongoing litigation with the federal government over the status of 12,000 rural roads across the state.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, caused a public outcry when he proposed the state pay for Lyman to appeal federal misdemeanor convictions for conspiring to and operating an off-road vehicle on public lands closed to off-road vehicles. The money would have run through the Utah Association of Counties.

Noel said the jury that convicted Lyman didn't hear the truth during the trial, particularly regarding the status of a road in the canyon on which the San Juan County Water Conservancy District maintains a right-of-way.

"This is a road case. This is a right-of-way case," Noel said in arguing for the money.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said there is a "deep level of outrage" over the state paying Lyman's legal fees. He said the state needs to be prudent in deciding when to fight the federal government over public lands issues.

"This is not a good battle to fight," he said.

Afterward, King — who is Lyman's cousin — said he was satisfied with the outcome. He said the Constitutional Defense Council could only appropriate money for certain things and is prohibited from spending to benefit an individual.

Lyman said he never sought money from the state for his case and hasn't decided if he will appeal. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month and could be ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for allegedly damaging ancient artifacts in the canyon. He faces up to one year in jail and a fine of $100,000.

Lyman hired his own archaeologist to assess any damages and said his report differs dramatically from what the BLM alleges.

"I feel like there were some things that were really lacking as far as the trial goes. But you go, you do your best and we came up short. I've accepted that," he said. "The underlying issues that prompted the protest initially are still very relevant."

Lyman said he wants the state to get involved in determining if there is a right-of-way in Recapture Canyon.

Noel said after the meeting that the state intends to file a legal action before Lyman's sentencing asking the court to rule on the status of the right-of-way in Recapture Canyon and whether the BLM followed proper procedure to close the road.

Lyman, he said, was within his rights to have a non-violent demonstration on the right-of-way and had permission from the water district to be on the road.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy; DNewsPolitics