Former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was sworn into his new position in the Utah House of Representatives Monday, and his first action as a legislator was to introduce a bill that would criminalize road closures in Utah.
Lyman’s bill, HB179, would make it a class C misdemeanor to block access to existing roads or to routes that are disputed under RS 2477 claims.
“The purpose of the bill is to provide some jeopardy to those who illegally close roads,” Lyman told the Canyon Echo in an email. “Illegal road closures are a major problem.”
In 2014, Lyman was involved a protest over the Bureau of Land Management’s 2007 decision to close an unauthorized ATV route in Recapture Canyon near Blanding, which the BLM feared was damaging archaeological resources. Although Lyman did not drive an ATV into the closed area, other protesters did, and Lyman later received a 10-day jail sentence and $100,000 fine, which he has been paying off in $100 increments each month.
San Juan County later hired San Diego-based attorney John Howard to seek a claim to a right of way in Recapture Canyon through RS 2477, a nineteenth-century statue that granted right of way for the construction of highways across public lands.
Howard argued that among other things the county “regularly expended public funds” to maintain a road in Recapture Canyon in the 1930s, which he says makes it eligible to become a county road.
RS 2477 was repealed by Congress in 1976, but claims made before 1976 may remain valid. The Recapture road is one of 14,000 historic routes totaling 35,965 miles that the State of Utah filed claim to in a 2012 suit against the federal government.
The state’s RS 2477 suit and San Juan County’s Recapture Canyon suit are both pending before federal court, and federal land management agencies, including the BLM and Forest Service, are not required to keep the disputed routes open.
Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, questioned the legal integrity of HB179.
“It’s not surprising that Rep. Lyman’s first bill would demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of federal law,” Bloch told the Canyon Echo in an email. “The state and counties have thousands of unproven RS 2477 claims across federal public lands throughout Utah, the vast majority of which are two-tracks and streambottoms that start and end nowhere. Until proven in court, the state has no legitimate basis to say or do anything regarding the use of these dirt roads and trails, let alone attempt to criminalize federal land management decisions closing them to motorized use.”
When asked if federal land managers could be charged for blocking access to disputed RS 2477 routes under his bill, Lyman said, “Federal land managers could be charged if they circumvent the legal process for closing a road.”
HB179 reads, “An individual who knowingly places or authorizes the placement of a temporary or permanent barricade on a class A, B, C, or D road, an R.S. 2477 right-of-way […] to permanently or temporarily close the road or right-of-way to vehicular traffic is guilty of a class C misdemeanor.”
If passed, violations would carry a $1,000 fine and/or a one-year jail term.