Phil Lyman listens to a speaker prior to embarking on an ATV protest ride in 2014 up Recapture Canyon.
A stack of cash, assorted 20s and 100s, pulled from the pockets of cowboy-boot-wearing county commissioners from across Utah lay on a table at the Utah Senate building Wednesday, a testament to the lawmakers’ unwavering faith in one of their own and their unassailable belief that the justice system had done him wrong.
For Phil Lyman, a San Juan County Commissioner convicted in May of conspiracy and driving on public lands closed to motor vehicles, Gov. Gary Herbert pledged $10,000.
From Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, Lyman received $1,000. And from several other commissioners from Washington to Weber counties, cash came piling in.
The sum, though, was likely a far cry from the $100,000 that the Utah Association of Counties (UAC) had requested from the state’s Constitutional Defense Council (CDC) to help pay for Lyman’s legal troubles.
After a closed-door session, the UAC, citing the high likelihood of a lawsuit if it used taxpayer money to bail out a single politician, withdrew its request for the public cash.
But in lieu of the public money, Lyman’s peers opened their wallets.
“We are very proud to support one of our own in his defense,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Cox, who presided over the meeting, blasted the media for painting an unfair picture of Lyman, who organized an ATV protest ride up Recapture Canyon near Blanding, Utah, in 2014. Bureau of Land Management officials closed the canyon, which is rich in archeological history, to motorized traffic in 2007.
Lyman’s ride up the canyon—which he and his supporters maintain took place on a legal county road—has become the latest flashpoint in Utah’s battle to wrest around 30 million acres of public land from the federal government.
Indeed, the CDC itself was created to assist Utah officials with laws impacting states’ rights, and at the moment, public lands issues are ground zero in this arena. The council is an arm of the state’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office. Among the more contentious issues being litigated involving public lands in Utah is RS 2477 roads, a patchwork of thousands of arteries that stretch across wide swathes of federally managed lands that many state and county leaders believe should be controlled and managed by local entities.
This battle has melted into the controversy surrounding Lyman, who rode his ATV on one of these so-called roads during his protest ride.
Kanab Republican Mike Noel, who is often at the forefront of the public lands debate, argued Lyman’s case to the CDC. Noel, himself a retired BLM official, accused the federal courts of failing Lyman by not allowing what he called crucial pieces of evidence to be presented.
But even Noel’s fiery insistence on coming to the aid of Lyman had tempered by the end of the meeting, when he noted that he didn’t want the state’s efforts to win court battles on RS 2477 roads to be blurred by outcry over dropping public money on Lyman’s court fees.
“I don’t want this whole issue to get lost in the morass of whether or not we’re using public funds,” Noel said. “I’ve already told Phil I’ve got a fat check to support him.”
Rep. Brian King, the Democratic minority leader, said that questions surrounding the balance of power between the federal government and the state need to take place. But bailing out Lyman, he said, is a fight not worth having. “We are overstepping our ground when we want to stand here and bluster and bluff about how wrong the judge and jury were in this case,” he said.
As lawmakers debated the issue behind closed doors—an action that was protested by Judy Fahys, a reporter for KUER radio—Lyman told reporters that he didn’t ask for taxpayers to come to his rescue, nor was he sure he would even appeal his case.
Lyman attempted to reflect the light off of his legal troubles and onto what he said is the real issue. “We’re talking about a right of way that needs to be determined,” he said, referring to the road he and his supporters drove through Recapture Canyon.
Lyman’s case has been compared to that of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, who in 2007 bid on $1.8 million of oil and gas wells located in sensitive sites around Utah. DeChristopher was convicted of two felonies and served 21 months in prison.
Lyman said he thought DeChristopher was “much braver” than himself, and he said that in his opinion DeChristopher was “overprosecuted.” On his crime, though, Lyman said he feels he did nothing wrong.
When it became clear the state wouldn’t be fronting Lyman any cash, county commissioners from across the state took the public comment microphone to praise the man.
Some commissioners said they feared that Lyman’s prosecution would have a chilling effect on other county leaders who want to voice their opinions. Others, somewhat out of context, praised the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. All seemed appalled that one of their own had been charged, tried and convicted of a misdemeanor in the Beehive State.
“Phil is a very good man,” said San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge. “He is standing up for his county and I think he’s standing up for the state of Utah.”
One public speaker, a white-haired woman named Carolyn Wiggins, said that Lyman made a choice to break the law, and he should take responsibility.
“I’m glad all of you carry $1,000 around in your pocket; that’s incredible,” she said to the weighty pocketed politicians. “As far as I’m concerned, not one dollar of my money is going to go to that.”