- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A southern Utah county commissioner who became a cause celebre in a movement challenging federal management of Western public lands calls charges against him “a modern-day witch hunt” in documents appealing a conviction for his role in an ATV protest ride.

Phil Lyman said he didn’t enter protected parts of the canyon in the event planned as a legal expression of frustration with conservation groups’ influence on Bureau of Land Management policies.

“Those who understand Blanding, Utah know that this small community has been hammered by BLM law enforcement for a number of years now,” Lyman wrote.

Lyman is appealing after a jury found him and a co-defendant, blogger Monte Wells, guilty of federal misdemeanors in the 2014 ride. It took place shortly after the government standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over similar issues.

Federal prosecutors say he led the ride through parts of Recapture Canyon closed to motor vehicles to protect ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old.

Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber has said his office will prosecute all violations of federal law no matter where a person falls on the political spectrum. His office declined comment Friday but is set to respond to the appeal next month.

The decision to block vehicles in the area has long been a source of tension, and the case showcased the deep-rooted strain between the federal government and residents in the West over land use. The issue remerged this year when an armed group occupied the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon.

Lyman distanced himself from the high-profile movement in court documents filed Monday, saying that the Bundy standoff weeks before his protest created a “heightened sense of peril which we could not have anticipated.”

Lyman, who is acting as his own lawyer, argued that his trial was tainted by the judge’s friendship with a conservation group lawyer. Lyman argued that U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby wrongly brushed aside the argument that he didn’t enter protected sections of the canyon.

Shelby recused himself after Lyman’s lawyers brought up the friendship. The judge subsequently assigned to the case denied a motion for a new trial and sentenced Lyman to serve 10 days in jail and pay $96,000 in restitution.

Wells is also appealing his conviction.

Several Utah officials have stepped up to support Lyman’s stance, including Gov. Gary Herbert. State lawmakers threw down wads of cash to help pay for his legal defense during a public hearing. The Utah Association of Counties named Lyman county commissioner of the year, though he returned the honor.

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