Officials in San Juan County are conducting a case of political and malicious criminal prosecution against Mark Franklin and Rose Chilcoat. The case, over a year old now and not yet even in the trial phase, is already a blow against Mark and Rose and a black eye for San Juan County. They saw a nefarious way to seek revenge against Rose, who is a successful, effective conservationist, and they are getting it. Mark and Rose have accumulated over $100,000 in related legal bills defending themselves against trumped up charges for an utterly insignificant event. They suffer the stress of being falsely accused of crimes that could incur substantial fines and decades in prison. It is a travesty that court proceedings have been allowed to grind on to this point. There is, alas, more legal grinding yet to go.
Rose is a hero in conservation circles. She has been successful in raising issues about how public land is illegally misused in the Southwest, particularly in San Juan County. Her name is well known there because of it and she is fiercely resented by certain loud locals who think the land is somehow rightfully theirs and that they should be allowed to use it however they please, without interference by the law. These are people who revere and emulate Cliven Bundy, and like Bundy, manage to get away with their crimes. Bundy is a scofflaw. Long before the armed standoff in Nevada in 2014, he was twice convicted in federal court, fined, ordered to pay his grazing fees, and to remove his trespass cows. He never paid his fines, he never paid his fees, and he never removed his cows. Somehow, he gets away with it. Try to imagine how you would get away with defying the U.S. Government in such a way. Unless you are part of the protected class of white, male, cowboy-hatted Mormons in the West, you can’t imagine it. Senator Orrin Hatch does not have your unprivileged back. It is unequal justice. It is an ongoing, ugly situation. It strikes at the heart of the American ideal.
The elected officials in San Juan County, particularly county commissioner Phil Lyman, despise Rose because of string of successes over the years where she has managed to protect public land from illegal damage and abuse.
In 2006, the Great Old Broads for Wilderness got a call from a concerned local citizen about an illegally constructed ATV trail in San Juan County’s Recapture Canyon. Rose and others went to check it out and found the illegal trail. Later they also uncovered looting and grave robbing of Native American artifacts which was happening as a result of the road-building. They gathered their allies and resources, and over the years thoroughly documented the impacts and reported enough evidence to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that the BLM was finally compelled to issue an emergency closure of Recapture Canyon to motorized use in the upper part of the canyon. As reported in High Country News, such vandalism triggers automatic closures to motorized vehicles under the Archaeological Protection Act, but locals blamed Rose and The Broads, not the vandals and illegal road builders.
In 2010, while Rose was participating in an agency organized field trip in Recapture Canyon as a Consulting Party under ARPA, the group ran into numerous “Wanted” signs that read, “Wanted dead or alive: Members of Great Old Broads for Wilderness are not allowed in San Juan County Utah.”
In 2012 The Broads hosted a multi-day camping event for more than sixty members on land owned by The Nature Conservancy in San Juan County. Twice their banner was slashed and defaced. That Sunday morning, the mostly gray-haired women found they had been dangerously locked in behind a closed gate and an old hag Halloween mask, doused in fake blood, hung in effigy on a fence post nearby. Underneath the mask was a milk jug with “Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance” scribbled on it. They had to hike out for bolt cutters. The San Juan County Sheriff “investigated” but there was no follow up whatsoever.
Women, in a legal gathering, were illegally and dangerously locked behind a gate in San Juan County and the county attorney and sheriff’s department did nothing about it. What if one of the older women had needed urgent medical care? Keep that in mind for the discussion later in this piece about Mark Franklin closing a useless gate that did not even threaten cows let alone humans.
In 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led an illegal ATV protest ride into Recapture Canyon causing an additional $100,000 of damage to archeological sites. Ryan Bundy, Cliven’s son, hot off the successful armed hold-off of federal agents in Nevada, joined the ride, armed to the teeth, as were many of the other riders. San Juan County sheriffs joined the protest in cowboy hats on horseback to be sure the protesters were not disturbed. Most conservationists did not show up on behalf of public lands protection, rightfully fearing for their lives.
Utah practices unequal justice when it comes to conservation versus extraction. Conservationist Tim DeChristoper got sentenced with nearly two years in the federal penitentiary for spontaneously holding up a paddle in an energy auction to drill on lands near Arches National Park—an auction that was later voided and declared illegal—Phil Lyman got only 10 days in a county facility and a fine for his conspiracy and premeditated illegal actions, actions that caused actual damage to the resource. Even though he got off lightly, like criminals are wont to do, he blames Rose for the punishment of his misdeeds. This is evidenced by his statements to media and his frequent libelous quotes on Facebook. (DeChristopher was harshly sentenced “for breaking the law” by Utah’s federal judge Dee V. Benson, the same judge who let the San Juan County artifact looters and grave robbers, busted yet again in a federal sting in 2009, off with no prison time because, “They are good people.”)
For 10 years starting about 2006, a group of local Native American tribes began working together to better protect sacred, culturally invaluable lands from looting and from the voracious extraction industry in San Juan County. Locally based Friends of Cedar Mesa, where Rose was a founding board member, also supported better protections. The unprecedented result was the declaration of Bears Ears National Monument — 1.35-million acres of exquisite red rock canyons set aside by President Obama in December 2016 to be co-managed by representatives of the Ute, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni communities. San Juan County officials were highly instrumental in getting the land stripped of protection just a year later by the Trump administration in the largest single rollback of public-land protection in American history. Trump cynically renamed the monument using a Navajo term and illegally removed one million acres from monument protection, primarily to promote energy extraction. Trump’s action is being challenged by numerous organizations and tribal nations in the courts.
San Juan County is a piece of work when it comes to abusing political power. Due to rampant racism and voting repression, in 2017 U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that San Juan County county commission districts were racially gerrymandered. He followed up with a ruling that gives Navajos a significant majority of voters in two of three county commission districts and three of five school board districts. Willie Grayeyes, a Navajo and a Democrat, was running to represent one of the new districts as commissioner in the upcoming November election. However, he was removed from the ballot after Republican county officials decided, by looking at tire tracks near his lifelong home in San Juan County, that he did not spend enough time there. That is how Putin treats his political opponents in Russia. Grayeyes is suing the County.
A gate on public land
In 2017 Mark and Rose were enjoying the beauty of the Colorado Plateau in San Juan County on a weekend camping trip with friends. On April Fool’s Day, Mark took a moment to investigate some unusual structures. He noticed a fortress looking corral with some of the fence down. While there, Mark closed a gate in a fence that did not function as a fence. He might have been closing the gate to keep nearby cows from wandering over to the nearby highway. He might have been closing the gate to separate himself from long-horned steers giving him the stink eye. As a judge suggested in a recent hearing before the Utah Court of Appeals, Mark might as well have been closing a gate with no corral attached since the corral wasn’t actually functional with the downed fencing. Though cows’ access to the water trough was never affected by the gate being open or closed, the San Juan County Sheriff was called by the rancher. Two days later that rancher and a couple of cowboys detained and accosted Mark and Rose in the area. The deputy came, assessed the situation, shrugged and said there was clearly no harm, no foul, no crime. They were sent on their way.
Nearly two weeks went by before Mark and Rose were shocked to find out from the local paper in their Durango, Colorado home that they both had been charged by San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws with attempted wanton destruction of livestock, a felony, and other spurious felony and misdemeanor charges maliciously asserted. Kendall Laws is from a ranching family and is good pals and works for Commissioner Phil Lyman in San Juan County.
Follow this and think about the First Amendment. Laws’ argument is that Rose’s involvement with The Great Old Broads for Wilderness proves her husband Mark’s wanton intent and that somehow Rose was also therefore complicit in their trumped up crime. Never mind that Great Old Broads does not in any way advocate for nor in any way has ever harmed a cow or any other livestock. The Broads are peaceful, older women who advocate for proper public land management. Never mind that Rose was not involved with the gate. Never mind freedom of speech and association.
San Juan County is abusing the legal system to exact political retribution. They are imputing possible criminal intent to Mark’s harmless action because he is married to Rose and additionally charging Rose on the most tenuous of grounds because of her lawful affiliations and communication with the Bureau of Land Management. How about imputing malicious prosecution to San Juan County for trumping up charges against a political enemy? That is the obvious actual crime committed, but because of the prosecution power of the rural county attorney, the State courts are forced to get into the legal weeds and consider whether Mark and Rose possibly intended to commit a crime, even though no crime was committed. It is an unfair fight, one that is designed to repress the protected free speech of conservationists advocating for the protection of public lands. How does one protect oneself from a renegade government like San Juan County? With Trump in office, the question becomes more pressing. (Friends and fellow conservationists are coming to Rose and Mark’s support and you can do so too here.)
You should be getting the nauseated chills. This is how authoritarian governments work, weaponizing the criminal justice system to punish and suppress their political opponents. We can’t let them get away with it.
More to come.