- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Five southern Utah men pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges in connection with an ATV protest ride through an off-limits area that organizers said was designed to draw attention to the U.S. government’s overreaching control of public lands.

“These are God-fearing Americans who want to enjoy the great outdoors,” said attorney Nathan Crane, representing blogger Monte Wells from Monticello.

The five men, who included a county commissioner, were accompanied by a crowd of supporters for their first court appearance in Salt Lake City on Friday. A two-day trial was set for Dec. 22.

Franklin “Trent” Holliday said he didn’t regret riding through the canyon, and didn’t understand why he was charged. The five suspects are each facing two counts, one of conspiracy to ride the ATVs and one of riding the all-terrain vehicles on closed public land. Each carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100,000.

“It seems a little crazy, a little excessive,” said Holliday, 31.

About 50 people took part in the May ride through southeastern Utah’s Recapture Canyon. It came shortly after a Bureau of Land Management confrontation with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and served as an illustration of growing tension between the federal government and Western residents.

Prosecutors filed the charges last month, saying citizens have a right to express their opinions but that riding through the closed canyon was an illegal way to voice their views.

BLM officials prohibited motor vehicles from the idyllic Utah canyon in 2007 to protect ancient cliff dwellings and native burial sites. Navajos say the ancient inhabitants were their ancestors and the area is like a church for them.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, one of the men charged, argued the artifacts could still be preserved if the canyon was open to all-terrain vehicles, and the federal government shouldn’t have absolute authority over the area. He proposed the idea of a protest ride and promoted it on social media.

Lyman and his attorney declined to comment on the charges Friday.

The BLM warned people to stay out of the closed canyon. While they didn’t block access or confront the riders on the day of the generally peaceful protest, agents documented people who took part. Prosecutors announced the indictment in September, about four months after the ride.

Prosecutors say Wells, 50, helped promote the event with a series of online videos. Jay Redd, 40, is accused of speaking to the crowd ahead of the ride. Redd, of Santa Clara, and another of the men charged, Shane Marian of Monticello, who was accused of taking part in the ride, declined to comment.

Redd’s father, doctor James Redd, killed himself in 2009 after being arrested in a sweeping federal investigation into trafficking of American Indian artifacts.

The family sued, saying James Redd was innocent and the arrest drove him to suicide. A judge this week refused to dismiss their claim.

Motorized access to Recapture Canyon and other wilderness areas has long been a source of tension. ATV riders rode another off-limits trail in 2009 in a protest, though no charges were filed in that case.

The canyon is about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City near junction of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, known as the Four Corners.

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