San Juan County paid $360K in legal fight for rights of way in renowned canyon

This 2014 file photo shows an ATV protest ride through Recapture Canyon. near Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014 | Photo by Dallas Hyland, St. George News

BLANDING (AP) — A Utah county paid more than $360,000 to an out-of-state law firm to sue the federal government in a case involving rights of way in a canyon that was the site of a 2014 ATV protest ride, an event that served as a flashpoint in the Western struggle over government land management.

San Juan County paid JW Howard Attorneys from 2016 to 2018 to sue the federal government, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday.

Officials were attempting to prove the county had title to a right of way extending about 3 miles through Recapture Canyon near the southeastern corner of Utah.

Records show taxpayers paid for some of the firm’s San Diego-based attorneys to travel using first-class airline tickets and conduct work at a rate of $500 per hour.

Payments continued after a May 2018 consolidation with a similar case brought by the Utah attorney general’s office and funded by the state. The case is not expected to be heard in court for years, officials said.

Utah sued in 2012 on behalf of San Juan County for rights of way to more than 4,200 miles of what it said were historic roads, including long-abandoned routes through national parks, monuments and wilderness study areas.

Counties and the state can claim rights of way for roads on federal land that were open to the public and used continuously for 10 years before the state statue was repealed in 1976.

In this 2014 file photo, then-County Commissioner for San Juan Commissioner Phil Lyman speaks at a protest rally against BLM at Centennial Park, Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014 | Photo by Dallas Hyland, St. George News

“Howard was worth every dime,” said Republican state Rep. Phil Lyman, a former county commissioner who signed the contract with lead lawyer John Howard in January 2017.

“Every invoice your head spins at the hourly rates, but that’s what they charge,” Lyman said. “There was no deception in it.”

Howard declined to comment.

Lyman led the ATV protest ride through the canyon in May 2014 shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a standoff with federal officials over similar issues.

Lyman was convicted of trespassing by a jury and spent 10 days in jail and was fined $96,000 in restitution.

At the time of the ride, the canyon was closed to motorized vehicles because of damage caused by unauthorized trail construction and damage to the archaeological sites. The canyon is home to Native American cliff dwellings.

In 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lifted the ban on motorized vehicles in some parts of the county, saying that providing recreation access on public lands is important and that disabled people can’t get around without motorized vehicles.

San Juan County is the poorest in the state with a poverty rate of 26%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county’s general fund — which also functions as its “rainy day” fund — had close to $10 million in 2015. By last year, it had dropped to $2.5 million.


The Salt Lake Tribune article was written by a corps member of Report for America, a nonprofit organization supporting local news coverage.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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