Tim DeChristopher came from an environmental background: He was born in West Virginia, and his mother was a strong opponent of the kind of coal mining that removes the tops of mountains. DeChristopher went on to study Economics at the University of Utah and also worked as a wilderness guide for troubled and at-risk youth. He always maintained a keen interest in the landâ€”how beautiful it was and how it was continually threatened by industry, principally oil- and gas-drilling companies. But little in his background could have prepared him for what happened on December 19, 2008.
The outgoing Bush administration was managing a controversial auction of public lands in Utah. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups couldnâ€™t be settled in time to prevent the auction. DeChristopher arrived at the protest outside the building and decided to move inside where the auction was being held. He approached the registration desk, was asked if he was there to bid on land parcels, and somewhat impulsively said yes; he registered as â€œBidder 70.â€
The bidding started, and DeChristopher saw a nearby friend weeping at all the land being given up to the corporate bidders intent on pillaging it for oil and gas. So DeChristopher decided to bid. He bid up each parcel higher than the companies wanted to pay and by the end of the auction had acquired 22,500 acres for $1.8 million. Not having any money to back that up, he was exposed as a troublemaker and the auction was halted.
But DeChristopherâ€™s actions had protected the land. Soon after that, the Obama administration began, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar dismissed the auction altogether, stating that the Bureau of Land Management had broken many of its own rules, including not accounting for climatological impacts before auctioning off public lands for energy development. In the meantime, DeChristopher had become something of a celebrity and found that he had a vast new audience for his ideasâ€”not only about preserving the environment but also about using civil disobedience to fight those who would despoil the environment. With the help of a university colleague, he founded Peaceful Uprising (www.peacefuluprising.org), a volunteer-based climate action group.
And then came his indictment, arrest, trial, and imprisonmentâ€”for misrepresenting himself and for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, both federal felonies.
To outside observers, the process may well have seemed a sham. The prosecution delayed the trial nine times. The trial itself was almost comically lopsided. The federal judge dismissed all of DeChristopherâ€™s efforts at defense: The jury wasnâ€™t allowed to hear anything about the threat of climate catastrophe, the fact that the auction had been invalidated by the federal government, or the information that DeChristopher had subsequently raised enough money to make initial payments for the land. The trial drew supporters from around the country, who were furious when DeChristopher was convicted and, in July of 2011, sentenced to two years in federal prison. He wasnâ€™t released until April of 2013, and is now on a three-year probation.
Those are the essentials of what happened, but thereâ€™s much more. DeChristopher made a final statement to the court at his sentencing, and in that statement articulated many of the beliefs that motivate him and others seeking to improve the condition of the world:
â€œThe message is that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited. Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.â€
â€œYou can steer my commitment to a healthy and just world if you agree with it, but you canâ€™t kill it. This is not going away.â€
â€œThe reality is not that I lack respect for the law; itâ€™s that I have greater respect for justice.â€
â€œThe people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today. And neither will I.â€
And this last statement is prescient:
â€œ(The governmentâ€™s) concern is not the danger that I present, but the danger presented by my ideas and words that might lead others to action.â€
Itâ€™s prescient because DeChristopherâ€™s ideas and words did in fact lead many, many others to action: A month after the sentencing, 1,253 people were arrested while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. It was one of the largest environmental protests in the U.S., and the coordinator of the protest, Matt Leonard, gave DeChristopher full credit: â€œTimâ€™s act helped break civil disobedience out of the domain of radicals and marginal activist culture.â€ Shortly after that, the Sierra Club reversed its century-old ban on civil disobedience and followed up with its own protests.
Tim DeChristopher took an action for what he believed in, paid a price, and inspired thousands of others to follow his example. As he said, â€œMy intent was to shine a light on a corrupt process.â€
Update: As of April 2013, DeChristopher is living in Salt Lake City, Utah, and working at Ken Sanders Rare Books while traveling and promoting the documentary about his arrest and incarceration, Bidder 70.