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.
Weisheit's group, like SUWA, uses the "process" and hires attorneys to file protests, comments or lawsuits against decisions by regulatory agencies. Both routinely send out press releases to draw attention to their viewpoints or cause and stage press conferences to detail developments in the latest hot-button issue.
But as federal prosecutor John Huber has stressed repeatedly before the court, DeChristopher — who asserted he acted because he had no other choice — did none of that before he committed his crimes.
"His (DeChristopher's) spontaneous course of criminal conduct was neither necessary nor justified. Rather, it was self-centered and juvenile, and lacked the fortitude and diligence that would be characteristic of the very movement that he claimed to represent," Huber argued in a recent filing.
In fact, he stressed, DeChristopher "did not take the time to articulate reasoning in a filed formal protest within the BLM proceedings. He did not initiate or join a lawsuit to bring to light perceived impropriety in a court of law. Nor did he focus creativity and sacrifice as others did in freely voicing their opinions to the auction in a public forum."
Prior to his disruption of the BLM auction, some activists say they had not heard of DeChristopher, asserting he failed to launch any type of public forum regarding climate change to draw supporters to his cause.
The sudden burst of notoriety in activist circles is in direct contradiction to the approach of groups like HEAL Utah — an anti-nuclear organization — and particularly its former executive director, Vanessa Pierce.
Pierce, who has since left her post for Washington, D.C., was an adept wrangler of people, motivating dozens upon dozens of fresh and familiar faces to pack radioactive waste hearings to battle EnergySolutions.
Petite, female, non-Mormon and non-native to Utah, she took the reins of the organization from a towering male used to looking "down" on legislators when he reviled EnergySolutions and any influence they exercised over policymakers.
"I think it was to be expected that it could be disarming for people to deal with me," she said, describing her lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill "They didn't know what this young small thing was going to say ... especially against one of the most arguably entrenched interests in this state. My first years on the job were incredibly challenging for that reason."
HEAL Utah and EnergySolutions frequently engaged in dueling press conferences or media blitzes to counter each others' message — but beyond the rolling of eyes — the combatants kept it mostly civil.
"Mark Walker (EnergySolutions' spokesman) and I occasionally would talk," she said. "In a strange way I like him. ... He's a nice enough guy. I give him a hard time; same with him."
Anderson said he believes HEAL Utah is the example to look to when it comes to effective environmental activism — not the fist-waving movement co-founded by DeChristopher.
"They have achieved amazing results by building up a large base of people who are willing to take on powerful interests, including legislators who benefit from those interests, and sustain their efforts over time, " Anderson said. "They have become a political force that legislators now realize they have to reckon with."
Steve Erickson, a longtime activist who has been the Utah point man leading the grassroots charge against a plan to tap an aquifer in Utah's west desert, said he admires DeChristopher for his dedication, but is less glowing when it comes to his methods.
"You have to admire someone who is willing to do that, but on the other hand, that is not the way I would have operated. That said, there are times for civil disobedience, but time and place is always a big consideration."
Anderson stressed he hopes DeChristopher doesn't spend "one day" in prison, but he worries about spreading the urgency of climate change through DeChristopher's methods, especially since surveys show each year, fewer and fewer people believe global warming is caused by man.
"If we are going to turn that around, it is not going to be from people who act impetuously who defraud the government and others," Anderson said. "I would certainly not urge other young people committed to this cause to go to prison — to say that is the only way to get to where we want to go on climate change. That sends entirely the wrong message."
DeChristopher isn't surprised that "established" environmentalists like Anderson may object to his methods, but points out lawsuits and lobbying only goes so far.
"That is the reason I have chosen the kind of tactics and strategies that I have," he said. "There are lots of lawyers and lots of lobbyists, but they alone are not going to get the job done."
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