Phil Lyman, convicted of using a protected trail, wants Utah to ignore federal road closures

His proposed legislation is still waiting on a Senate vote on the last day of the 2024 legislative session.

While off-roading advocates are challenging recent federal road closures near Moab in court, lawmakers have attacked them from the legislative front.

HB471: Public Lands Possession Amendments, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, has passed the House and is waiting for a vote in the Senate.

The bill says that Utah counties and the state can “disregard any attempted closure of a road without due process,” pointing a finger at the federal government.

“It’s the whole thing in general, the whole movement of more and more disregard for the role that states and counties have in stewardship of the roads,” Lyman, who is also running for governor, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The 317 miles of road closure in Moab kind of emphasizes this point.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in September released a travel management plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area, which covers 300,000 acres in southeastern Utah, near Moab. The area is home to hundreds of miles of routes for off-roading and passenger vehicles.

The BLM’s plan closed 317 miles of routes that were previously open to motorists, citing damage to sensitive riparian habitats, danger to cultural resources and complaints from other recreators. About 800 miles of routes remain open to motorized vehicles in the plan.

Environmental groups praised the BLM for the road closures for creating balance in the desert landscape.

Off-roading advocacy groups and the State of Utah, on the other hand, have challenged the travel management plan in federal court. They expressed frustration with the BLM’s decision and accused the agency of federal overreach.

HB471 says that any road included in a county’s travel plan is public — unless the road has been closed by the state or “properly adjudicated” by the federal government. If passed, the bill would also shift the burden of proof to the federal government to “show that the disputed road is not a public road and warrants closure.”

“That’s clearly, on concept, illegal and unconstitutional,” Robert Keiter, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, told The Tribune.

“The state can’t summarily override federal law,” Keiter continued.

If road closures have occurred without due process, according to the bill, the road closure is invalid and can be disregarded by the state or county.

“This just says, well, on roads, the state says they’re still our roads, even if somebody else says they’re not, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not,” Lyman said. “So, adjudicate that before you close it — well, go through the due process.”

Lyman has made his support for local control of roads a centerpiece of his political career.

In 2019, he introduced legislation that made it a misdemeanor to close roads under certain conditions, which was signed into law.

In 2014, the lawmaker — acting as a private citizen — organized a protest ride of all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Canyon, a sensitive area dense with cultural and archaeological resources closed to motorized use by the BLM.

Then a San Juan County commissioner, Lyman said that he was fighting against federal overreach. He spent 10 days in jail for the illegal act.

“The state and the county are just really being disregarded, and they shouldn’t be,” Lyman said about the Moab road closures. “They have a role to play. It’s not so much about roads as it is about lanes. The federal government has a lane and when they’re in their proper lane, they have jurisdiction.”

HB471 passed the House with 59-11 this week and is still awaiting a vote in the Senate.

While Gov. Spencer Cox has not spoken out about this specific bill, he voiced his disapproval of the BLM’s plan to close roads near Moab.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Emily Anderson Stern contributed reporting to this story.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.