Commissioner Phil Lyman Recapture Canyon protest
Commissioner Lyman at Recapture Canyon protest, used by permission of Dallas Hyland

Written by Marcos Camargo

On Tuesday, June 16, the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands voted 6-2 to approve a motion that would appropriate $100,000 in state funds for the future legal defense of San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman. The motion now moves to the Constitutional Defense Council for final approval. If approved, the money would come from the Constitutional Defense Fund, an account set up to fund public land litigations.

On May 1, a jury in federal court found Lyman guilty on conspiracy and trespassing charges. The conviction stemmed from a May 2014 group ATV ride led by Commissioner Lyman into Recapture Canyon to protest federal land restrictions. The trail lies on federally owned land that is closed to motorized vehicles because of its proximity to sensitive archeological sites. Lyman plans to appeal his case.

Lyman and his followers are part of a larger movement that seeks to put federal lands back into the hands to the states. The movement, a continuation of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, receives widespread support among Utah lawmakers. Utah Rep. Michael Noel (R), who serves on the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, introduced the motion because he says the Lyman case is important for all who support the transfer of federal lands to the state.

“It’s more than just Commissioner Lyman’s legal fees for his fight,” said Noel. “He’s already paid all of his legal fees out of his own pocket. He’s now been convicted and waiting for sentencing, and we think the precedent that will be set from this conviction is a very, very bad precedent.”

Noel said that there never should have been a conspiracy charge.

“Conspiracy is normally for crimes like, extortion, burglary, embezzlement, fraud,” Noel said, “but never for driving your four-wheeler on a supposed closed road.”

Noel also said that the trail used by the riders had previously been dug up with approval from the BLM, and therefore the fines levied against Lyman for damaging archaeological sites should be dismissed.

Not everyone on the Commission agreed with Noel’s assessment. Sen. Jim Dabakis (D), who cast one of the two dissenting votes, said that this would be the first time that monies from the Constitutional Defense Fund will have been used to pay for the appeal of an individual’s criminal conviction.

“The Constitutional Defense Fund has never been used for the defense of anybody,” said Dabakis. “It is the litigation fund that the state uses to sue the federal government on their many lawsuits. This would be an unprecedented use of the funds.”

Despite this never-before-seen use of state funds, Noel said he is confident that the Constitutional Defense Council will grant approval of the request.

“I’ve been a member of the CDC for thirteen years now,” said Noel. “I’ve been employed under five different speakers, so I’ll have a vote. We added one more member from the house, Kevin Stratton, and he’ll vote in favor. We have a member from the Senate, and they’ll vote in favor. We have a SITLA school trust lands director who will vote in favor. So I feel like I’ve got four commissioners and three legislators. That’s seven, and the school trust, that’s eight, and I only need seven, so I think I’ve got enough votes. And I think I’ll probably get the Governor’s representative and the AG’s representative. We won’t get the two Democratic representatives, but we’ll get everyone but two. So that’s my feeling.”