Challenging federal rules in the West yields uneven justice

In Boston over 200 years ago patriots dressed up like Indians, smashed crates, and threw tea into the harbor. In today’s American West, protesters falsely bid on oil and gas leases and ride ATVs in closed canyons. 

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and instead went to jail, sparking a bus boycott which energized the Civil Rights Movement. Protesters with deeply held beliefs, committed to their causes, have changed the United States, often for the better. But to be successful and to earn your place in American history, protesters must be willing to accept their punishment. Justice must be meted out evenly. Such is not the case in the West and especially not in Utah.

In May 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Monticello City Councilman Monte Wells encouraged ATV riders to come to Blanding, Utah and to ride through Recapture Canyon, where locals had built an illegal ATV trail through ancient archaeological sites without regard to federal laws or environmental assessments. The Bureau of Land Management officially closed the area to motorized use in 2007, citing damage to cultural artifacts.

After the canyon closure, the next year in 2008, college student Tim DeChristopher walked into a federal auction of oil and gas leases to permit drilling near the boundaries of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. He took a wooden paddle to become bidder No. 70 and altered the auction by offering $1.8 million for 14 leases he did not intend to purchase. It was a quiet, calm, act of civil disobedience compared to Lyman’s ATV ride six years later which frightened many local San Juan citizens because of radical riders who showed up armed with semi-automatic rifles and pistols.

Eventually, the Obama Administration dismissed 87 of the 116 oil and gas leases auctioned by the Bush Administration because of the wilderness value of land adjacent to two popular national parks. For his protest, DeChristopher was convicted of a felony, sentenced to two years in prison, and fined $10,000. The prosecutor argued, “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in the name of the cause of the day.”

The U.S. Attorney claimed, “A federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior,” yet U.S. District Judge Dee Benson stated that if it were not for DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” after the auction, he might have plea-bargained and avoided prosecution. “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t all that bad,” felt the judge.

Tim DeChristopher served 21 months in a Colorado prison as a climate-change activist who has since co-founded an environmental group named Peaceful Uprising.

For organizing an illegal ATV ride in Recapture Canyon, Lyman and Wells received federal convictions on misdemeanor charges and were ordered to pay $96,000 in restitution. Lyman will serve 10 days in a county jail in St. George, Utah, have three years probation and pay only $1,000 in fines.

Lyman, a successful accountant and elected Republican San Juan County Commissioner, sought a public defender. He did not want to pay his legal bills. A judge disagreed.

When it became clear that Lyman would have substantial legal costs, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wrote him a check for $10,000 and other politicians also contributed because they felt that the protest ride and the closure of Recapture Canyon was a state’s rights issue.

Ten days in jail for Lyman, 21 months for DeChristopher. A $10,000 fine for DeChristopher and $96,000 in restitution for Lyman and Wells. The bedrock of American law seems not to be solid in Utah’s red rock canyon country. When friends and supporters of Phil Lyman can raise funds to cover his legal expenses and court-mandated fees, 10 days in jail is hardly the equivalent of 21 months.

Since the Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office insisted on making an example out of Tim DeChristopher to “deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior” then why only a slap on the wrist for an armed ATV ride challenging federal authority? How can raising a wooden bidder’s paddle be a felony and breaking a closure order to intentionally drive over archaeological sites be a misdemeanor?

Now we have an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon — surely a felonious act deserving of prison time. Disagreements over public land use are not abating. If passionate protesters want to challenge federal rules in the West, that’s every American’s constitutional right. But let’s have justice, too.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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