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

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 12:54 a.m. MST

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?

"So many people defended coal as key to our economy and key to our economic development, and yet we were one of the most impoverished places in the country, and we've been pulling coal out of the ground for 150 years," DeChristopher says of his home state. "Everyone kept thinking we're pulling so much wealth out of the ground, that sooner or later we've got to get our piece of that wealth. ... But it's been 150 years, and they're still waiting for their ship to come in."

In March 2008, DeChristopher was fully converted to the perils of climate change after attending the Stegner Symposium at the U., an annual conference of national environmental leaders, where he heard scientists and climate activists describe the irreversible impact pollution has already had on the earth.

He was inspired to action, convinced by Goldberg's class that he too could be an agent for change. He started by taking his concerns about climate change to his congressman, Jim Matheson, but he felt dismissed and ignored.

"The more I got involved (in the political process) the more I realized you can't change the system from within the system," DeChristopher says. "The rules are set up to protect the status quo. … Every great step forward (in the history of America) has taken civil disobedience."

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 singlehandedly thrown a wrench in the works of a federal auction that was already under scrutiny, DeChristopher became a minor celebrity.

Attention on DeChristopher dwarfed the actions of other environmental Utah organizations, like Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, who had been protesting the auction outside in the blowing snow.

While they said they appreciated DeChristopher's bravery and passion for activism, they quickly pointed out, "you'd never see anybody from SUWA doing what Tim did." They work through the legal system and established political channels to affect change.

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