Eco-Activism: And the Winning Bidder Goes to Jail

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Jim Urquhart / AP

Tim DeChristopher walks to federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, February 28.

On Dec. 19, 2008, in the waning days of the Bush administration, Tim DeChristopher won federal government bids on land sales in Utah worth $1.8 million — but he never intended to pay for any of it. A dedicated environmentalist, he had embarked on what his lawyers called an act of civil disobedience to disrupt federal oil and gas leases at a Bureau of Land Management auction, driving prices up on numerous parcels and actually winning 14 of them. Eventually, after his monkey-wrenching of the bids was discovered, the newly-installed Obama administration pulled 77 of the land parcels back, negating their sale and their use for exploiting energy reserves.

On Mar. 3, 2011, after close to five hours of deliberation, an eight man four-woman jury found DeChristopher, 29, guilty of two felonies: violating the federal onshore oil and gas leasing reform act and making a false statement. DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison for the phony bids.

After the verdict was announced, DeChristopher's supporters — who throughout the four-day trial had gathered in front of the court house, demonstrating, holding signs and cheering when he exited the court house during breaks — locked arms and began singing songs. Many of them wept. The crowd applauded as DeChristopher exited the Federal court house and told his supporters that he would be going to prison because it is a job that he had to do. He declared, "[I am] not one finger easily broken, but part of a fist." According to Logan Froerer, spokesperson for Peaceful Uprising, DeChristopher does not intend to appeal.

It was a judgment almost foreseen. Earlier in the trial, Judge Dee Benson had ruled that DeChristopher's motive for bidding could not be used as a defense. "We're not here about why he did it. We're here about whether he did it," Judge Benson stated after defense attorney Ron Yengich claimed his client "thought this whole process was a threat to him and his generation."

The day before the verdict, DeChristopher testified that he did not initially intend to bid on the land parcels, but was simply joining a protest by environmental activists against the land sale that was taking place in front of the building where the BLM was holding its auction. "That morning I realized that the protest wasn't really going to have much of an impact, and this auction deserved more than just holding a sign. I wanted to go inside and take stronger action and really raise a red flag as to what was going on there," DeChristopher said.

He indicated it was a spur of the moment decision. Upon seeing DeChristopher enter the building, a security guard asked him if he was there for the auction. When DeChristopher said "yes," he was directed to a table where a BLM official asked if he was a bidder to which he replied "yes" as well. He was then provided with the paraphernalia to make bids. DeChristopher testified: "I realized with the bid card I was given there was an opportunity for me to cause enough of a delay for the [Obama] administration to come in and reconsider the auction." Approximately 20 minutes later DeChristopher won his first piece of land.

Throughout the four-day trial defense attorneys argued DeChristopher did not understand the severity of his actions on Dec. 19, 2008. Yengich argued before the jury: "Mr. DeChristopher really did not have any intent on harming the BLM or upsetting the auction per se, but that would be his means of standing on his hind legs and making a statement. And, as many young people do, he got caught up in the moment as he began this bidding process." According to the defense, DeChristopher did not fully understand the criminal nature of his behavior until questioned by a BLM agent after the auction.

According to the prosecution, DeChristopher intentionally "disrupted, derailed and sabotaged," the 2008 lease auction. "[DeChristopher] crossed the boundaries when he left the lawful protest to go inside and do what he did. He chose a path of illegality and criminal conduct," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber said in his closing statements. Earlier in the trial BLM Special Agent Love, who questioned DeChristopher after the 2008 auction, stated that upon questioning DeChristopher wanted to know how much trouble he was in.