There is an eerie feel to what’s going on in San Juan County and surrounding areas of rural southern Utah that I am surprised has not attracted more national attention and outrage.
I’m talking about the ridiculous felony charges the San Juan County attorney’s office filed against an environmental activist and her husband for closing a gate on a rancher’s grazing area and the judge’s refusal to consider evidence showing just how bogus the prosecution’s allegations are against Colorado resident Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, in filing the charges, argues that Chilcoat and Franklin tried to kill rancher Zane Odell’s cattle by closing a gate to his corral and blocking the cattle’s access to drinking water.
Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson, a longtime resident of the area, has ordered the couple to stand trial and discounted evidence that a section of the fence was already down, so closing the gate had no effect on the cattle’s ability to reach the water.
Let’s be clear: Chilcoat and Franklin are not being prosecuted on charges that could land them in prison for up to 21 years because they shut a gate. They are being prosecuted because Chilcoat was an associate director of the Colorado-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, an environmental group that San Juan County’s good-old-boy network loathes.
They are being persecuted by the good-old-boy county attorney and the good-old-boy judge, and they will be judged by a good-old-boy jury in a county that has demonstrated many times how much it hates “outsiders” trying to steer policies on “their” land.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman even went on his Facebook page to rant that Chilcoat and Franklin should be prosecuted and that rancher Odell should sue them for millions of dollars — even though there is no evidence that Odell suffered any damages.
Lyman has a particular dislike for Chilcoat and the Great Old Broads for Wilderness because they pushed for the Bureau of Land Management’s closure to motorized traffic of Recapture Canyon to safeguard its sensitive ecosystem.
Lyman was convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for organizing a protest ride of ATVs in the canyon in violation of the BLM’s orders.
The case against Chilcoat and Franklin is so preposterous it attracted the attention of University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a former federal judge, who filed his own motion for dismissal out of concern that local yokels are violating the couple’s constitutional rights.
Defense attorneys will surely file a motion for a change of venue, which should be granted. There is plenty of evidence to show the pervasive hostility among many San Juan County residents toward environmentalists such as Chilcoat.
On the same day as the mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 that killed six people and severely wounded then-Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, The Durango (Colo.) Herald ran a story about homemade “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters around Blanding that said members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness were not allowed in San Juan County.
In 2016, I wrote about hikers on San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa taking pictures of two notes they saw on a sign board near Muley Point and sending them on to the BLM and the FBI.
The first note said: “Entering Greater Canyonlands National Park. No ATVs. All ATV trails are closed. No wood gathering. No hunting. By order of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Coloradans for Utah Wilderness.”
The second note declared an “open season on backpackers” with “no limit on how many can be harvested” and stated that “any weapon can be used.”
And it’s not just San Juan County.
Ten people on a nature walk in Uintah County’s Tavaputs Plateau in 2016 were arrested by a Utah attorney general’s investigator and county deputies and then hauled to jail, leaving their children behind at a campground, because they had ventured too close to a tar sands mine.
Then there was the time a state audit found that cops in Springdale were targeting international tourists traveling to Zion National Park, giving them phony tickets and intimidating them into paying on the spot with cash.
Perhaps it’s time for federal troops to be deployed in rural Utah to ensure local officials don’t violate visitors’ civil rights.