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Utah student becomes an accidental activist

By Amy Choate-Nielsen  |  Posted Dec 12th, 2010 @ 2:59pm



 

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Tim DeChristopher doesn't like attention. But he is bound to get it with all the hammering going on in this quiet Sugar House neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.

It is a warm day in October, and DeChristopher and a few friends are outside on his driveway, getting ready for a climate change protest they'll host downtown in just a few weeks. They've got a mascot from a previous protest -- a white unicorn with a sparkly pink mane and the words "clean coal" painted on its ribs -- posted at the end of the pavement, and it's drawing curious glances from the neighbors as they walk home from church.

A gray-haired woman perched on top of a table barks out instructions to a skinny young man hammering together a coffin, while another group paints bright posters. Somewhere in the garage, DeChristopher is standing alone, quietly shredding newspaper to make papier-mache.

A few years ago, the 29-year-old was mostly anonymous. But in the in the last two years, the unlikely activist has become one of the most outspoken new voices in Utah politics. He burst onto the scene in December of 2008 as a college student when he crashed a BLM auction of oil and gas leases in Salt Lake, bidding on parcels of land he couldn't afford and jacking up prices in an attempt to derail drilling in the remote wilderness of Utah.

The auction earned him withering criticism from some who called him a loose cannon and a radical, and gushing praise from others who admired his audacity and young idealism.

Since then, for a man who says he's not after attention, the University of Utah grad has done plenty to keep attracting it. He's granted interviews to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. He's become a public speaker and leveraged media attention from National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times to spur others to fight for a cleaner environment.

Through Peaceful Uprising, a nonprofit group he started, he waged political war against incumbent Rep. Jim Mathe8son, D-Utah, and sent the longtime congressman to his first-ever primary since being elected in 2000.

While DeChristopher has galvanized hundreds of young people toward public involvement, it's hard to see the actual results of DeChristopher's actions or gauge his effectiveness.

Early last year, DeChristopher was indicted on two felony counts of interfering with a federal auction, and if convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a potential $500,000 fine. In many ways, his trial -- now scheduled for Feb. 28 -- is his greatest claim to fame, but it's polarizing.

Through Peaceful Uprising, DeChristopher has a network of some 350 people who agree with his ideals, but some of his critics -- including environmentalists and developers -- say his actions were misguided, fruitless and foolish. Land and energy issues are among the most divisive topics in Utah.

Tim DeChristopher never set out to become a political activist. In 2005, the West Virginia native came to Utah as a therapeutic wilderness guide, and at 26, he decided to go to the University of Utah and start his education.

As a student at the U., DeChristopher often spent his mornings in an old, flat-roofed building on campus, taking an unusual class for an economics major.

Robert Goldberg, an award-winning professor and former '60s activist, taught the course, which focused on showing how some social movements in America's history succeeded and others failed. The right to protest is inherent, Goldberg taught his students -- and that idea resonated with DeChristopher.

Growing up in West Milford, W.Va., DeChristopher developed a distaste for injustice. His area had a wealth of coal reserves that were mined daily, but it didn't seem to benefit his town at all. Paint peeled off the buildings and homes were falling apart, which didn't make sense to DeChristopher -- if coal makes you rich, why was the town poor?

As Goldberg's class came to an end for the semester, DeChristopher heard that the Bureau of Land Management was going to host an auction of oil and gas leases on land in southern Utah.

Talk of the sale rankled environmentalists around the country who said it was a rushed, last-ditch effort by then-President Bush to favor the energy companies without regard to the damages that could come to the wild and rugged parcels up for auction. National media coverage and protests honed in on the issue in the months leading up to it, and by the day of the sale, Dec. 19, 2008 -- two weeks after his class ended -- DeChristopher was ready to act.

He walked into the auction wearing jeans and a red thermal shirt, signed his name, and picked up paddle No. 70. He assumed he'd be carted off to jail if he won any bids, so he sat toward the back of the crowded room, deciding what to do. There were mostly men in the audience, dressed casually in collared shirts and sweaters, and as they bought parcel after parcel, DeChristopher's irritation grew.

By doing nothing but watching the process, he felt he was condoning it. So he took the only option he saw available. Raising his paddle, as nonchalantly as the rest of them, he bid as often as he could on land he had no intention of paying for.

At first, the bids were low -- DeChristopher won one lease for $2.25 an acre -- but slowly, as he bid, and bid, and bid, driving the prices higher, the cost per acre soared to $270 for one parcel with more than 2,000 acres.

As news rocketed across the country that a 27-year-old college kid had single-handedly thrown a wrench in the works of a federal auction that was already under scrutiny, DeChristopher became a minor celebrity. His strategy was a direct affront to the mainstream environmental approach. Others complained that he had cost Utah's struggling economy millions by interfering with the auction.

In the almost two years since the auction, DeChristopher has traveled around the country on speaking assignments and focused on Peaceful Uprising, which hopes to bring attention to climate change through nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

For a different approach, DeChristopher mobilized the 350 people on the group's "action team" last year during a climate bill debate in Washington to keep tabs on Utah's only Democrat in Congress. Whenever Matheson said or did anything significant in the hearings on the bill, a phone tree was triggered and people from Peaceful Uprising called Matheson's office to give feedback. The first time, 250 people called. A few days later, 400 people called. Then Matheson "went underground" and skipped the rest of the floor debate, DeChristopher says.

So Peaceful Uprising took out an ad on Craigslist.org looking for a "courageous congressperson" and from that ad came the Claudia Wright campaign. The retired history teacher who'd never run for public office didn't win -- she earned only 32 percent of the vote -- but her challenge forced a runoff primary that "cost Matheson over a million dollars," DeChristopher says with some satisfaction.

State Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said he sees DeChristopher as just another radical -- an outsider who had no right to interfere with the BLM auction.

"He's just way out of line," Noel said. "He's off base. He's not from our state, but he came here, got an education, then does that to the citizens of Utah and says, 'You can't have these (oil and gas) revenues.'"

Noel, a 63-year-old grandfather of 17, cancer survivor and rancher, represents a general opinion in his eight-county district in southern Utah that the state should have fewer national monuments and restricted wilderness areas, more opportunity for development and greater access to its own natural resources and mineral reserves. He's been re-elected five times, but still, he gets hate letters -- including several from people who said they wished he'd die during his cancer treatment -- for his own protests of off-road vehicle restrictions and defense of development.

The state receives some $230 million from the energy industry through severance, property and sales and use taxes, Gov. Gary Herbert said in June as he announced the state's 10-year strategic energy plan, but Noel believes the potential for much more money is available. He is as sincere in pleading his cause as DeChristopher is, and feels equally misunderstood.

"There is a disconnect between the urban areas and the rural areas," he says. "Up on the Wasatch Front, because they're locked in the asphalt jungle, they say, 'They're destroying the wild places.' Come down and look at my ranch that I've had for 30 years and see what it's like. We're not destroying anything down there. We just want to live."

A little before noon on Friday, Nov. 5, you can almost see the nervous energy swirling in the air around DeChristopher. He stands with his hands in his pockets on Main Street, across from the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, with 10 or 15 protesters.

DeChristopher doesn't say much at first, standing in one place, giving stiff hugs to the people who come to talk to him. He's wearing a crisp black suit for his mock trial -- his chance to explain that the government and energy industry should be held accountable for their mistreatment of people and the earth. The protest also has another message. U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson has ruled that DeChristopher cannot claim his actions at the 2008 BLM auction were a necessity, so as DeChristopher sees it, this is his only forum to make his voice heard.

DeChristopher has the endorsement of such leading environmentalists as NASA climate scientist James Hansen, actor Robert Redford and writer Terry Tempest Williams.

"There are courageous acts of civil disobedience being performed quietly, privately by individuals throughout Utah and this country that are just not being played out in the public sphere," said Terry Tempest Williams, a prominent Utah author and activist who befriended DeChristopher after the auction. "These people are not facing a trial in the court of law. Tim DeChristopher is."

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(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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