Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Tim DeChristopher, center, in dark suit, marches to the courthouse to plead not guilty to disrupting BLM auction.

Activist Tim DeChristopher concedes he's had concerns at the prospect of spending 10 years in prison for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases.

But those concerns, he emphasized, do not eclipse his fears that inaction and apathy will lead to global, environmental degradation making the earth unlivable for future generations.

"Until Brett Tolman (the U.S. Attorney for Utah) can start dishing out penalties" on that level, DeChristopher vowed in front of enthusiastic supporters that "I am not going to back down."

With that, DeChristopher walked to the federal court house on Tuesday to make his first appearance on a pair of felonies that carry a potential of 10 years in prison and fines of up to $750,000.

He pleaded not guilty, even though he has unabashedly admitted to crowds he deliberately "monkey-wrenched" a BLM auction of oil and gas leases last December as a matter of protest.

His actions, which earned him an escort by police and the designation as poster boy for acts of civil disobedience, also cultivated a cult following of sorts evidenced by the crowd of at least 200 attending a rally in his support.

"I think he's damn wonderful," declared one faithful supporter.

A banner stretched across the Main Library's plaza, declaring "Climate Justice is Survival: Now or Never."

Supporters carried signs with the number "70" — DeChristopher's bid number during the December auction in which the University of Utah student successfully bid on more than a dozen parcels.

For that, prosecutors filed one count of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. In his registration for the auction, DeChristopher also signed off on paperwork that misrepresented his intentions, according to charges. That resulted in one count of making a false statement.

At the rally, DeChristopher said the charges were meant to intimidate others from protest.

"They're trying to discourage you from resisting this path of destruction we're on," he said. "You might give up because there might be consequences," pointing out it is a "naive view to think we are going to give up."

Salt Laker Gary Widdison turned out to support DeChristopher at the rally, saying the university student is a tempest for the voice of protest linked to environmental awareness.

"There's been a real lack of awareness in this country and in our own community about the urgency of the global warming problem," Widdison said. "He's caught a lot of people's imagination and has drawn attention to something that is easily ignored."

Ashley Anderson, a fellow U. student, told the crowd that "we are all bidder 70. This isn't just about an auction, beautiful land and a mean old attorney," he said. "This is something much bigger. … This is a story about inspiration."

Later in court, federal prosecutor John Huber asked that DeChristopher be ordered to surrender his passport. Additional pretrial restrictions include possession of a firearm, which is routine.

Also routine for such appearances came the warning from Judge David Nuffer that communications between DeChristopher and anyone other than his attorneys could be used in his prosecution. That was just minutes after his impassioned speech at the library to supporters, many of whom sat on hard courtroom benches to listen to the charges.

A five-day trial was set to begin July 6.

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com