Block a road, go to jail.
That’s the upshot of Rep. Phil Lyman’s first foray into state legislating with his HB179, which would impose criminal sanctions on anyone who “knowingly places or authorizes the placement of a temporary or permanent barricade” on any public road, including disputed routes claimed by Utah counties across public lands.
The bill mirrors the stunt for which the former San Juan County commissioner is most famous — or, depending on whom you ask, infamous: organizing an illegal ride through an archaeologically delicate southern Utah canyon that the Bureau of Land Management had closed to motorized use.
Lyman, now a state legislator, earned a 10-day jail term for the conviction arising from the 2014 Recapture Canyon ride protesting BLM policies that many in San Juan County argue exclude the public from public lands.
The Utah Association of Counties registered its approval of Lyman’s conduct by naming him Commissioner of the Year — an honor he later turned down — and its leaders dug into their pockets at a public meeting to fund his unsuccessful appeal.
Now the Blanding Republican, filling the House seat held by retired Rep. Mike Noel, looks to turn the tables on his critics by exposing them to jail terms if they disrupt vehicle access to rights of way that counties claim across public land under the repealed frontier-era law known as RS2477.
His legislation, introduced during the opening week of Utah’s legislative session, would make blocking a class A, B, C or D road — or an RS2477 right of way — a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a jail sentence of up to 90 days and a $750 fine.
Lyman said laws already exist against illicitly blocking public roads, but there are no real penalties for violators.
He accuses environmental groups, site stewards, volunteers and BLM employees of improperly obstructing roads by dragging large rocks or logs onto thoroughfares, posting closure signs or digging ditches and berms across roads. Federal employees who improperly impede public roadways, he said, should face the same criminal penalties as anyone else who does so.
“They don’t get a free pass. They don’t get to violate state law,” he said. “Federal employees are not saints.”
Critics say the measure is premised on a misunderstanding of the law. If enacted, HB179 could wind up being used against federal land managers who close routes deemed unnecessary or destructive through open planning processes, according to Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“The state and counties have thousands of unproven RS2477 claims across federal public lands throughout Utah, the vast majority of which are two-tracks and stream bottoms that start and end nowhere,” Bloch said. “Until proven in court, the state has no legitimate basis to say or do anything regarding the use of these dirt roads and trails, let alone attempt to criminalize federal land management decisions closing them to motorized use.”
Bloch noted that half the routes claimed by Kane County on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are to be phased out under the monument’s management plan. Would HB179 result in criminal charges against monument managers for blocking such roads?
Meanwhile, many RS2477 routes cross private land. Lyman’s bill could expose property owners to jail if they lock gates across such routes.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Lyman cited a time when volunteers with Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Bluff-based land stewardship group, closed routes in Bears Ears National Monument. Although the BLM acted swiftly to reopen them, he was incensed that the alleged culprits could not be held accountable.
“The last thing rural people need,” Lyman said, “is these groups out there closing access to these roads vitally important to their livelihood and customs.”
Friends of Cedar Mesa Executive Director Josh Ewing rejected Lyman’s characterization of his group’s work, which he said occurred two months ago when federal officials approved a work plan to obliterate unnecessary user-created tracks leading to archaeological sites.
“While all of us who live in San Juan County rely on roads to access our cherished public lands,” Ewing said, “no benefit comes from impugning the motivations of hardworking volunteers, conservationists and land managers doing their best to protect archaeological sites, find compromise and meet the obligations of federal law.”
According to Ewing, the BLM signed off on the project plan, assembled by a professional archaeologist, after the agency authorized a new route that provides more direct, less-damaging access to the sites at the north end of Butler Wash. But one of the routes the crew blocked with logs and rocks was still listed as open on the BLM’s travel plan and should not have been closed.
“Unfortunately, the BLM had not gone through all of its internal and external processes to make a travel plan revision,” Ewing said. “Due to this oversight and at the request of the BLM, the mitigation of these tracks impacting archaeological sites was reversed. We are hopeful the BLM will address this issue in a timely way, as the redundant, unnecessary tracks encourage motorists to drive over sites sacred to indigenous peoples.”
Because the matter remains under investigation, a BLM spokeswoman declined to offer comment.
Reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.