Environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, go to court this month to answer felony charges related to closing a corral gate on a federal grazing lease in San Juan County, Utah.
Chilcoat, especially, seems to be facing prosecution for who she is rather than anything she actually did in that incident. She is a retired associate director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness and a founder of Friends of Cedar Mesa, and she has been outspoken about closing Recapture Canyon to motorized use to protect archaeological sites. The couple lives in Durango.
Her attorneys contend that San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman has pushed for the criminal charges in retaliation for her advocacy. In May 2014, Lyman led a caravan of off-road vehicles through Recapture Canyon in protest of the 2007 closure of what his supporters said were historical roads, and Chilcoat advocated for criminal prosecution for that act of civil disobedience.
It’s easy to see why Chilcoat and Lyman are at odds, but no one involved in the case disputes that it was Franklin who closed the corral gate. The prosecution says Franklin’s intent was to prevent cattle from reaching water in the corral. Franklin has said he thought he was helping the rancher, Zane Odell, and cattle were not blocked because a section of the corral fence was down. No one claims that cattle were harmed, only that they could have been.
Sheriff’s deputies who responded when Odell later confronted Chilcoat and Franklin apparently believed there was little evidence of a crime, perhaps not even criminal trespass. Then the story grows even more complicated. Chilcoat is accused of making false claims about Odell’s grazing practices in retaliation for his criminal allegations against her.
A plea deal that could have resulted in dismissal of Chilcoat’s charges and reduction of Franklin’s felony charge to a misdemeanor fell apart over legal concerns. There’s still a chance that this month’s trial may be averted, and conviction is far from a sure thing.
Leaving gates as they were found is an important part of the code of the West, and closing one to no apparent effect seems petty, but it hardly rises to the level of ecoterrorism. Franklin seems to be in major trouble over a fairly minor infraction mainly because he is married to Chilcoat, and Chilcoat is in trouble because of her activism, not because of any crime. The charges against her carry the ridiculous possibility of a 21-year sentence.
Resolving the concrete issue – closing a gate – should be straightforward. Philosophical and political differences over public-lands grazing and environmental activism will not be reconciled by criminal prosecution.
First Amendment issues must be cleaved from the rest of this. Chilcoat and Franklin have a constitutionally protected right to express their opinions, even in San Juan County, Utah. So do Zane Odell and Phil Lyman. Allegedly trying to harm livestock, or driving over fragile resources in defiance of a prohibition against it are not the same as having an identity that is unpalatable or offensive to some people.
The sports world has a saying that’s applicable here: Play the ball. Leave personal dislike of opposing players on the sidelines. Franklin deserves, at most, a slap on the wrist. The charges against Chilcoat should be dropped. This is not a fight that belongs in a criminal courtroom.