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

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

DeChristopher's strategy was a direct affront to that approach, and some complained that he had cost Utah's struggling economy millions by interfering with the auction.

It's hard to know the impact DeChristopher will have in creating a long-term change, says Goldberg, who was so impressed with his student that he gave him one of the highest grades in his class. But he adds that DeChristopher's willingness to act as an individual in opposition to a system he thinks is harmful is a triumph for the disillusioned.

"To step out of the rat maze and say, 'No,' is a very unusual event in the history of our state," Goldberg says. "Tim is in a long tradition of individuals who have said 'No.' Who have said, 'I don't want to participate.' And it's not simply folding your arms and saying, 'No,' but it's acting on your belief because it's understanding that your actions have an impact far beyond what you do."

It's a Wednesday afternoon, a few weeks before his protest, and DeChristopher is sitting in a coffee shop in Sugar House reliving some of his childhood memories, thinking about how he came to see that civic engagement was a kind of calling in his life.

He looks like a typical bachelor — no watch, no necklace, no rings — with an ever-present scruff on his face. His unflinching eye contact discloses a thoughtfulness that is surprising for a young man branded by some as reckless, but his trademark seriousness seems to age him.

In the almost two years since the auction, DeChristopher has travelled 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.

"It isn't about breaking windows," said Ashley Anderson, DeChristopher's co-director of Peaceful Uprising, shortly after he was briefly arrested in October at a climate change protest at the White House. (Anderson and about 100 other people deliberately stepped over a police line drawn on the ground to prompt the arrest.) "There needs to be a level of conviction and passion where people put themselves on the line, but they aren't destroying things. Wanton destruction isn't the best way to transition away from the predicament we're in."

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 Matheson. Whenever the congressman 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.

"That's when we realized that just letting him know where we stood wasn't enough and we had to get rid of him," he says matter-of-factly, with a mug of coffee between his hands. "He was standing in the way of what we wanted to see."

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.

"I think the reason I felt empowered to do that was that I felt a need to create the world I wanted to see," he says. "I realized our democracy wasn't working, so we made an attempt to restart our democracy from the ground up."

DeChristopher considers himself a revolutionary, rather than an environmentalist. But other Utahns, like state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who is one of the most outspoken advocates in the state for fewer federal restrictions on local land, see DeChristopher as just another radical — an outsider who had no right to interfere with the BLM auction.

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