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Not all environmentalists like DeChristopher's brand of activism

Judge to decide Tuesday whether he'll serve prison time for fake bids at BLM auction

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 1:46 p.m. MDT

Tim DeChristopher speaks to other activists last month.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge on Tuesday is slated to determine the fate of Timothy DeChristopher, a young environmental idealist who has carved out a faithful throng of followers with his criminal actions and impassioned speeches.

Not every environmental activist, however, is enamored with DeChristopher's methods for drawing attention to the issue of climate change. Some assert the martyrdom of his actions has done little, if anything, to convert new believers and may have even hampered their cause.

"I doubt his actions convinced one person who did not already agree urgent action needs to be taken to protect our climate," said former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, a longtime climate change activist who nevertheless insists jailing the man would be  wrong.

DeChristopher faces imprisonment of up to 10 years for deliberately derailing a public oil and gas lease auction in 2008, fraudulently bidding $1.8 million on 14 parcels of land on behalf of wresting climate change.

Judge Dee Benson — as pressed by DeChristopher's defense attorneys — could opt for  probation as punishment for convictions on third degree felony charges of violating a federal onshore oil and gas law and making a false statement.

Beyond his followers who have become fixtures at the federal courthouse through the duration of his prosecution, DeChristopher has earned accolades from some other activists who use a more traditional and sedate means of protesting government or corporate actions.

"We think he has made a huge sacrifice and we are incredibly grateful," said John Weisheit, conservation director of Moab-based Living Rivers.

Weisheit said one of the parcels DeChristopher "won" at the botched auction was close to Arches National Park and any drilling activity could have impacted the airshed or viewshed of the park.

"I acknowledge what he did is controversial," he said, "but it goes to show you that people and the government were not really looking at the full environmental impact to these resources. It took citizen action to wake the public up."

DeChristopher has argued that the "illegal" actions of the government forced him to take criminal action to right a wrong, despite whatever personal sacrifice might befall him.

Not long after the jury pronounced him guilty, DeChristopher stood on the steps of the federal courthouse, his own convictions undeterred by possible imprisonment.

"We know now that I will have to go to prison. We now know that is the reality, that is just the job I have to do," he said. "That is the role I have to face. Many before me have gone to jail for justice and if we are going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well."

Other longtime activists, however, disagree with DeChristopher's methods and believe the fight to stop climate change may have been delivered a setback by his "impulsive" actions.

"I normally think there is room for all different kinds of strategies, that it is not a one-size-fits-all situation when you want to bring about change," said Anderson. "But I fear we might be losing ground on dealing with the climate crisis by diverting so much time and energy and attention to one person's illegal actions, rather than moving everything forward in a positive direction."

In the weeks after DeChristopher was escorted by police from a Bureau of Land Management auction in downtown Salt Lake City, he and a close friend launched Peaceful Uprising, a climate justice advocacy organization that seeks to effect change through grass-roots and nonviolent means.

DeChristopher's fiery brand of environmental activism — the group's logo is a clenched fist — is premised on his unrepentant criminal action that is largely a departure from the status quo of eco-activism in the state, different from the methods of groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance or HEAL Utah.

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