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