Hero or Criminal? Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher on Trial

Last week, Tim DeChristopher picked up a protest sign and stood with fellow activists in front of an energy company's Salt Lake City headquarters, part of a demonstration against the coal industry called by his group Peaceful Uprising.

This week, the protesters are on the street again, this time in front of a federal courthouse. DeChristopher is inside in a four-day jury trial that could send him to federal prison for 10 years for his efforts to derail an auction of natural gas leases close to treasured Utah landscapes and national parks.

In December 2008, DeChristopher entered the auction and bid on leases he had no intention to drill. He walked away with 14 parcels worth $1.7 million, and he drove up the prices on others. That, prosecutors say, is a crime, because his intention was never to drill, but to disrupt the auction.

DeChristopher has shrugged off plea deals to take his protest from the auction room to the courtroom and make his case to jurors that his activism was not a crime.

"I think the jury needs to be a part of our legal process," DeChristopher said. "It's them that I'm really appealing to. I think the role of the jury is to prevent the oppression of the government, as it was established by our founding fathers. That was also the point of my civil disobedience. It doesn't make sense to me to just be appealing to a judge who is a part of the government and has those special interests in maintaining the status quo."

Now, as DeChristopher prepares for trial, he's also steeling himself for the possibility of time in the federal penitentiary. Maybe not 10 years, DeChristopher said, but if he's found guilty, he legal team tells him it may be two or three.

"I've had two years to prepare for it," DeChristopher said, "and it's something I was building up a commitment for beforehand when I realized how serious the climate crisis was. I was preparing myself for that kind of sacrifice."

The case has become legend in the annals of the environmental movement, and DeChristopher has become a conservation hero, a monkey wrencher who sought to protect the landscape without blowing up dams or spiking trees but by turning the gas leasing process on its head.

The Bush administration had angered many environmentalists for a drilling rush that opened up many new lands to gas rigs, including places critics said deserved to be protected. But no auction drew more controversy than the last one before Bush left office. The Dec. 19, 2008, sale was offering up 116 parcels in Utah, some of them close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon.

Frustrated with standing on the sidewalk with a sign, DeChristopher, then a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student, walked past the protesters who had assembled on Dec. 19, 2008 and entered the bidding room. He said he didn't know what he would do once he got there, but when a BLM official asked him if he wanted to join the auction, he said yes, effectively trading the protest sign for the bidding paddle.

He became Bidder 70, driving up the prices of many of the parcels, buying up rights to drill on 22,400 acres and infuriating other bidders before the auctioneer became suspicious and stopped the auction.

DeChristopher left without paying the necessary down payment and without any intention of drilling. That, prosecutors said, set him apart from previous bidders who simply came up short on cash and were never prosecuted.

"No one else set out to disrupt a federal auction or represented themselves as a bona fide bidder. Only DeChristopher threw an entire auction in disarray," prosecutor Scott Romney told a judge in a hearing last March.

In the end, it's unclear how much difference DeChristopher's action made. A federal judge in Montana last year ordered the leases halted after he found the Bush administration hadn't properly reviewed the environmental impacts. The incoming Obama administration balked at the last-minute maneuver and took off the table 77 of the parcels, including those DeChristopher won.

Obama administration officials argued, as DeChristopher has, that they shouldn't have been leased in the first place. But the same administration has continued to pursue the charges against DeChristopher, even though he wouldn't be allowed to drill on the lands if he wanted to.

Adding to the irony, Patrick Shea, a former BLM director under President Clinton, has taken on DeChristopher's case in an effort to convince federal officials that he his actions were political, not criminal.

"He's really a very bright, upstanding and principled individual who was rightly upset about some of these leases being offered," Shea told the Washington Post last year.

DeChristopher stands by the action. He believes it not only stopped the auction but helped bring awareness to the issue that aided in overturning the leases. And, he said, it's helped galvanize supporters behind him, from the left and right.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'I don't believe all this stuff about climate change but I like what you did,'" he said. "It's encouraging to see that folks across the spectrum realize that those of us on the bottom are really on the same side."

While DeChristopher stands on trial, supporters march and sing protest songs, including folksinger Peter Yarrow, actress Daryl Hannah and author Terry Tempest Williams.

It's unclear how much of DeChristopher's case will be heard in court. His attorneys sought to argue that DeChristopher was acting out of necessity to prevent a greater harm, but Judge Dee Benson has ruled against that argument. DeChristopher said he still hopes to try to make that case.

"The auction was clearly illegal," he said. "In essence what I was doing was standing in the way of a crime. That's really the case we would like to show in front of a jury. This was a crime in progress and I was standing in the way of a crime."

The judge has also ruled against another of his arguments, that he has been unfairly targeted for prosecution while other bidders who failed to pay weren't prosecuted.

If he fails, he said, he's prepared to go to prison. It's not unlike young Mormons in his home state, he said, who head off for two years of missionary work around the globe, often in uncomfortable situations.

"I kind of consider it my mission for the next two years, you know?" he said.

Follow David Frey at www.davidmfrey.com.