Amy Choate-Nielsen: Unlikely activist: Tim DeChristopher is praised, reviled as environmental radical
"He's just way out of line," Noel says. "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.
Considering that Peaceful Uprising has worked phone trees and organized gatherings of hundreds of like-minded individuals, today's turn out is smaller than they hoped. The group holds small stacks of papers — their scripts for today's performance — and practice their lines.
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 long-awaited 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 mock trial is his only forum to make his voice heard.
For today's protest, Peaceful Uprising has the written support of national climate change activists, including Robert Redford, Terry Tempest Williams, and climatologist James Hansen. The celebrity activists penned a letter asking others to support DeChristopher when his trial finally comes.
"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."
It's not a pleasant idea, going to prison for 10 years, but DeChristopher says he can imagine worse things. When he thinks of prison, he thinks of Alice Paul, who led the women's suffrage movement in the early 1900s and earned women the right to vote. She was arrested, but eventually, she gained freedom.
"People use that phrase, that I'm sacrificing my freedom, but I felt like at the auction, it was the first time I was exercising my freedom and holding on to it and refusing to let go," he says. "I think to just sit there and … just be obedient to this destruction in progress, that would have been sacrificing my freedom, because then I would have had to say, 'I'm helpless. I'm a victim.' … And I feel much more free now than I did before. And I think that will continue even if I go to prison."
Now that the protest is about to begin the crowd is starting to grow. A few reporters have turned out, and there are video cameras already rolling. As the mock trial plays out, DeChristopher delivers his lines, then watches approvingly from the side as the focus shifts away from him.
He attracts attention, but he also deftly redirects it.
"The threat of staying on the path we're on (toward climate change) right now weighs on me much more heavily than the threat of going to jail for a few years," DeChristopher says. "Of course I'm scared of it, but I've been scared for my future for a long time. I don't think the threat of going to jail is something we should run from."
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