Utah lawmaker Phil Lyman sues feds over Recapture Canyon dispute, seeks $10M in damages

San Juan County’s Recapture Canyon, the site of a protest and illegal ATV ride in 2014, is once again in the courts after Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, filed a complaint Friday against the Bureau of Land Management in U.S. District Court.

Representing himself without an attorney, Lyman, who is a certified public accountant, alleges multiple BLM officials lied under oath about the status of a disputed route through the canyon and requests that “judgment be entered against the BLM for punitive damages in an amount not less than … $10 million.”

Lyman also asserts, without providing any evidence in the filing, that the BLM worked behind the scenes with news organizations and conservation groups to attack his reputation.

“The BLM’s collusion with media, the U.S. attorney’s office, special interest groups, including The [Great] Old Broads for Wilderness, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, to name just a few," Lyman writes in the lawsuit, “was malicious, knowingly inaccurate, and calculated as an effective form of character assassination against Mr. Lyman.”

The suit refers to a protest ride organized by Lyman in 2014, when he was a San Juan County commissioner. Protesters ignored warnings from the BLM before the event that it would seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties if riders entered a section of canyon that had been closed to protect archaeological resources.

The ride, which Lyman says had 500 participants, led a jury to convict him and Monte Wells, a blogger in Monticello, of criminal trespass and conspiracy, both misdemeanors. Lyman was ultimately sentenced to 10 days in jail and a $96,000 fine in 2015. He served his time in 2016 and has since been paying off the fine in installments of $100 a month. Wells was sentenced to five days in jail.

Lyman represented himself before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in 2017 in an ultimately unsuccessful appeal of his conviction.

In his lawsuit, Lyman says the trial, his conviction and the failure of his appeal were possible only because of a “choreographed fallacy promulgated by the BLM” in officials’ repeated assertions that a maintained access route to a water pipeline in Recapture Canyon was not a county road.

The filing cites a 1981 document from the BLM and references unspecified “county roads” near Recapture Reservoir as well as roads in the area that “were built per authority of repealed R.S. 2477,” which allowed counties to construct roads on public lands before 1976. Counties and states are still allowed to claim rights of way to roads that were maintained with taxpayer funds and open to the public for at least 10 years before the statute’s repeal.

The next sentence in the original BLM document, however, reads, “The location of county roads in the area are shown on the portion of topographic map depicting the dam and reservoir site (in addenda).”

The referenced topographic map was not included in Lyman’s suit, but a complete copy that he sent to The Salt Lake Tribune in August does not depict a county road in Recapture Canyon downstream of the reservoir site, which is where the protest ride occurred.

Topographic map included with a 1981 Bureau of Land Management document that shows county roads near Recapture Reservoir in San Juan County, Utah. An area closed to motorized vehicles by the BLM in 2007 begins downstream of the dam site where no county roads are depicted.

Lyman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

While serving as a county commissioner in 2016, Lyman hired California-based attorney John W. Howard on behalf of the county in a closed commission session. Howard used the same 1981 document to make a similar argument in court under RS 2477.

Despite costing county taxpayers $360,000, Howard’s case never advanced to trial and was instead consolidated with a pending suit being litigated by the state of Utah, which is seeking title to more than 4,200 miles of additional RS 2477 claims in San Juan County.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, during a meeting with state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

Lyman’s lawsuit argues the BLM “failed to follow its own administrative procedures in closing the area” to off-road travel in 2007 and alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It contends the BLM did not consult with local and state officials before the closure, as would have been required if the county had a federally recognized right of way in the canyon.

“Representative Lyman’s lawsuit is a dead-end manifesto that should be dismissed out of hand by the federal courts,” said Stephen Bloch, SUWA’s legal director. “Following Lyman’s conviction by a federal jury in 2015 and a decision affirming that conviction by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Lyman has continued to try and assign blame for his situation to anyone but himself. This filing is just [more] of what we’ve come to expect: conspiracy mongering and name-calling.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby, who oversaw the Recapture Canyon trial, recused himself before sentencing after Lyman objected to Shelby’s acquaintance with Bloch.

In January 2018, Lyman submitted a federal tort claim to the BLM that sought $2.5 million in damages. The claim was rejected in May 2019 and the Department of Interior’s Office of the Solicitor told Lyman he could dispute that decision by filing in district court within six months, a deadline that is less than two weeks away.

The lawsuit is currently assigned to federal Judge David Nuffer, and Lyman argues the venue for a jury trial should be in San Juan County.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.