- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Four Utah men accused of riding ATVs through a closed southern Utah canyon to protest what they call federal government overreach will stand trial on criminal charges, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Following a 90-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled against the protest riders and scheduled the case for a jury trial later this month.

The defendants’ attorneys had contended that the case violated the men’s right to free speech and that evidence was insufficient to prove the charges. They also argued that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn’t follow the proper steps to close Recapture Canyon back in 2007.

The defendants are San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman, Monticello blogger Monte Wells and alleged protest participants Shane Marian and Franklin “Trent” Holliday.

They have pleaded not guilty to illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Their attorneys declined comment outside court.

The illegal ATV trail in Recapture Canyon cuts through ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old and is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago before they disappeared. The canyon - which is about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City near the junction of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado known as the Four Corners - is open to hikers and horseback riders.

The May 2014 protest ride, featuring about 50 people, came shortly after a BLM confrontation with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and served as an illustration of growing tension between the federal government and Western residents.

The riders said they organized the protest to show their disgust for the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands. The BLM didn’t block access or confront the riders, but they vowed to prosecute people who participated.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the judge said he was puzzled by the argument made by Wells’ attorney that his free speech was being violated because he was a blogger who considers himself a journalist. Attorney Nathan Crane said the only evidence prosecutors had to tie Wells to the conspiracy were his blogs.

Shelby said Wells’ articles were irrelevant to the charge, which is related to him riding on the off-limits ATV ride. Shelby said journalists aren’t given a free pass on committing crime just because they write about it first.

Shelby was also skeptical of the argument made by Lyman’s attorney that prosecutors haven’t demonstrated sufficient evidence to allege a crime. Shelby disagreed, saying the accusations leap off the page in the charging documents.

Shelby also shot down Lyman’s claim that the government didn’t take proper steps to make clear the trail was closed to ATVs.

A jury trial is set to start April 28, with the deadline for plea agreements two weeks before that.

Motorized access to Recapture Canyon and other wilderness areas has long been a source of tension in the area. BLM officials prohibited motor vehicles from the idyllic canyon to protect ancient cliff dwellings and American Indian burial sites.

Last year, Lyman wrote an article in the Deseret News arguing that the artifacts could be preserved if the canyon was open to all-terrain vehicles and that the federal government shouldn’t have absolute authority over the area. He proposed a protest ride and promoted it on social media. Wells did a series of video interviews with Lyman about the planned protest ride for his blog, but argued that he didn’t try to incite anyone to break the law.


Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this article.

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