Amy Choate-Nielsen: Unlikely activist: Tim DeChristopher is praised, reviled as environmental radical

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Ashley Anderson, top, Heather Suker and Tim DeChristopher create papier-mache heads which were to be used in a mock "climate trial" in Salt Lake City on Nov. 5, 2010.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tim DeChristopher doesn't really 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 grey-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 when, as a college student, 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 non-profit group he started, he waged political war against incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and sent the long-time 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 rescheduled 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 the state, and, though he's not even 30, DeChristopher has found himself in the middle of a battle that pre-dates him by decades.

That's where the unicorn comes in — his mascot with the pink tail and the white paint. To DeChristopher, the creature symbolizes an idea — clean coal — that is as fictitious as a fairy tale. But to an outsider, the cartoonish statue also embodies a fantasy-like optimism that an approach like his might change the world.

That's why this protest, though it could be one of his last before his trial begins, is so important. It could be the stage where his revolution really begins.

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.

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