It was the kind of lead I dreamed of as a Utah resident but could never have imagined appearing on the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune: "He didn't pour sugar into a bulldozer's gas tank. He didn't spike a tree or set a billboard on fire. But wielding only a bidder's paddle, a University of Utah student just as surely monkey-wrenched a federal oil and gas lease sale Friday, ensuring that thousands of acres near two southern Utah national parks won't be opened to drilling anytime soon."
His name was Tim DeChristopher. He was twenty-seven years old. The date was December 19, 2008. And for those of us in the American West, Utah, in particular, who had been battling the Bush-Cheney oil regime for close to a decade, it was a very sweet moment in the protection of public lands.
This college student who came to a protest at the federal building in Salt Lake City on a snowy day walked inside to get warm and was suddenly asked if he was here to participate in the Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction. He said yes, picked up a bidder's paddle, and $1.8 million later won fourteen parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. BLM agents then removed DeChristopher from the premises for disrupting the sales and questioned him. Tim stated clearly and eloquently, that he could not in good conscience sit by and let these illegal leases on America's public lands be sold to the highest bidder, that his act was one of civil disobedience in protest of the Bush-Cheney energy policies that were contributing to global warming.
On February 4, 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar "shelved" the sale of seventy-seven lease parcels due to improper and rushed land reviews during the previous Administration, including the parcels that DeChristopher had won.
Last April Fool's Day, a federal grand jury handed up a two-count felony indictment against DeChristopher for violating the terms of the auction. If convicted, Tim would face up to ten years in prison and owe up to $750,000 in fines. On April 28, he pleaded not guilty. Ronald J. Yengich, DeChristopher's attorney, said, "Bush and the BLM should be on trial here." Not Tim DeChristopher.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson denied DeChristopher the opportunity to argue in court that he tried to sabotage the auction to combat global warming. Now the trial has been postponed. Many speculate the oil and gas industries do not want their past privileges granted by the Bureau of Land Management aired in the courts and called into question by this high-profile case.
For some, Tim DeChristopher is a folk hero. For others, he is more than a bogus bidder, he is an intentional felon who should go to jail.
For me, he bravely and brilliantly choreographed a lively piece of theater that exposed the Bureau of Land Management's complicity with the oil and gas industries for what it was: a wholesale giveaway of America's most beautiful wildlands. The integrity of our public lands depends on the integrity of our public process. DeChristopher showed, with the raise of his hand repeatedly, how the auctioning of these commons had become corrupted and abused.
In December 1982, Edward Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, said this in a television interview: "I think a lot of people are going to become very angry, and they're going to resort to illegal methods to try to slow down the destruction of our national resources, our wilderness, our forests, mountains, deserts. What that will lead to I hate to think."
Whatever you think of Tim DeChristopher, he is now a leader within the climate change community who should be not only taken seriously, but seen as an emblematic member of his generation, smart and strategic, who is tired of business as usual. Incrementalism -- supported by the environmental movement or adopted within Congress or government agencies -- is moving like bureaucratic sludge. Given the magnitude of what we are facing as a planet, we need to act now and we need to act creatively.
The challenge becomes how to act when there is a widespread belief in America that climate change is a hoax, a conspiracy led by communists, atheists, and, yes, progressives to "control world population and destroy capitalism." Consider the Utah legislature, which proudly passed early this year "House Joint Resolution 12," a resolution that in its original drafting called global warming "a trick." In the final version, by the time you get through the fifteen declarative "whereas" classes, you finally reach: "NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Legislature of the State of Utah urges the United States Environmental Protection Agency to immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs and withdraw its 'Endangerment Finding' and related regulations until a full and independent investigation of the climate data and global warming science can be substantiated."
HJR 12 was sponsored by State Representative Kerry Gibson, a dairy farmer. He said he was afraid that if the federal government went forward with cap and trade, it could lead to a "cow tax," causing his own cows to be measured for "belches" and other gases. Another state rep, Mike Noel, added: "We need to have the courage to do nothing."
I am relieved that for now, Tim DeChristopher's trial in Utah is postponed. God knows who might be serving on the jury.
Tim and I have been keeping in touch, thinking about what is not only possible, but necessary. In a letter dated February 10, he wrote me about the film Freedom Riders he'd seen at the Sundance Film Festival shortly before.
"I feel like Freedom Riders represents everything that the climate movement is missing: commitment, sacrifice, boldness and confrontation," he wrote. "We're always told that people need to feel personally threatened by the climate crisis in order to act, but some of the key figures in the film were white students in Tennessee who were not threatened in any way by the status quo. Yet they made a bold commitment to ride into certain danger in the Deep South. They dropped out of school during finals and literally signed their wills and last testament before they left."
Tim picked up on the strategy of the Freedom Riders. "They weren't trying to change any minds in the South," he wrote. "They were using the closed-minded antagonists in the South to escalate the tension until the federal government had to intervene. Those today who try to get the Utah State Legislature to understand climate science are using the tactic of trying to get Bull Connor to really love black people."
And he stressed the Freedom Riders' willingness to sacrifice. "This really puts our movement in perspective," he wrote. "I don't know of a single one of us in this movement who has committed anything close to the level of sacrifice that the Freedom Riders did. We have more than enough people in our movement to force the changes we seek. A small group willing to throw themselves into the gears of the machine really can stop the machine."
He was unsparing about the current state of the movement. "There is no doubt that the climate movement has failed," he wrote. "The hard truth is that we have failed not because conservatives are stupid, but because liberals are cowards. It seems like the vast majority of people supporting the climate movement are very comfortable in their lives, and it's nearly impossible to change the world when we are committed to keeping our own lives the same. That's why rich people make such terrible activists."
We had been talking about our shared despair the day before, as I had been with the photographer Chris Jordan, whose images of albatrosses on Midway Island, beautiful and terrifying at once, with bellies filled with plastic, had not allowed me to sleep. "We must let ourselves be shattered by the hopelessness of the crisis," Tim wrote. "When we abandon the hope that things will work out, the hope that we will be able to live the easy and comfortable life which we are promised, the hope that someone else will solve this problem, then we are free to act.... The opposite of hope is empowerment."
He signed his letter "with love and desperate action, Tim."
I honor how Tim seized the moment when he suddenly found himself inside an oil and gas auction with a bidder's paddle and began raising it. He saw a crack in the system and realized he could widen it with a gesture of guts and aplomb. I hope one day that I, too, can act that quickly, that bravely, and with that kind of serious mischief should another opportunity arise in the name of environmental justice. Tim DeChristopher shouldn't have to serve time in prison, even though he says he is prepared to pay the consequences for his actions. I can think of better candidates who have oil on their hands and green bucks in their pockets.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of " The Open Space of Democracy" and, most recently, "Finding Beauty in a Broken World." She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.
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