Environmental Justice: One Illegal Bid at a Time

On April 21, the day before Earth Day, Tim DeChristopher was released from custody by the Department of Justice. He had served 21 months for having committed an act of civil disobedience against a government bureau that had violated the law.

In his mid-20s, DeChristopher, who graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, was in Utah to work as a wilderness guide with at-risk and troubled youth.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in the last month of the George W. Bush presidency (December 2008), decided to auction 149,000 acres of public land in southern Utah; most of the land was near national parks. Big Energy was there to scoop up what it could at bargain basement prices in order to drill for gas and oil. Environmentalists protested, and filed suits to block the sale, but didn’t have the money to outbid the gas and oil companies.

DeChristopher, an economics student at the University of Utah, didn’t have the money, either. But, on a spontaneous decision after he entered the auction, he got a paddle and bidder number 70. After watching energy companies take parcel after parcel of pristine land at prices as low as $40 an acre, he bid on parcels to inflate the price, eventually winning bids on 14 of those parcels, totaling 22,500 acres. His winning bids, about $1.7 million, would have given him prime federal land for about $77 an acre.

His actions voided the auction, but succeeded in holding up the sale until a federal court the following month issued a temporary injunction, ruling that the BLM violated federal environmental and historic protection laws. A month later, the Obama administration revoked the sale of 77 parcels totaling more than 100,000 acres. The sale price of those parcels averaged about $60 an acre. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Department had “rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our greatest national icons, some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes.”

Although DeChristopher and hundreds of thousands of activists succeeded in reversing the BLM sale and kept the land from being carved up by drillers, they didn’t succeed in obtaining justice. The federal government continued its pursuit of DeChristopher who now increased his activism, further enraging the prosecution. In April 2009, four months after the auction, he was indicted for fraud and violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

On the night before his trial at the end of February 2011, hundreds gathered at the First Unitarian Church.

Four days later, after nine postponements requested by the Department of Justice, DeChristopher was convicted. The court had refused to allow the defense to present evidence that the auction was illegal or that other successful bidders reneged on their commitments and were not prosecuted. “The injustice in this case wasn’t that I was facing a trial,” said DeChristopher, “It’s that the jury was denied the information to decide if my actions were justified.”

During the next four months, the Department of Justice ran an extensive investigation on DeChristopher, and recommended he be sentenced to probation, with no jail time. DeChristopher and his attorneys had previously rejected a plea bargain that would have given him a 30-day jail sentence and probation.

However, Judge Dee Benson disregarded the Department of Justice recommendation, and ordered DeChristopher to pay a $10,000 fine and serve a two year sentence.

During the trial, the prosecutor had argued that DeChristopher could have halted the auction in other peaceful ways or that he could have appealed the awarding of land. During the sentencing hearing, DeChristopher pointed out, “it had become common practice for the BLM to take volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process those permits [for land]. The oil industry was paying people specifically to volunteer for the industry that was supposed to be regulating it, and it was to those industry staff that I would have been appealing.”

He also referred to a New York Times investigation that, said DeChristopher, revealed “a major scandal involving Department of the Interior regulators who were taking bribes of sex and drugs from the oil companies that they were supposed to be regulating. In 2008, this was the condition of the rule of law, for which Mr. Huber [the federal prosecutor] says I lacked respect.”

Judge Benson openly acknowledged, “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad,” and stated he might not have imposed a prison sentence—but that DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” and activism following his arrest was not acceptable. Thus, a federal court ruled that exercising a First Amendment right was a factor in sentencing, a decision the Appeals court later affirmed on technicalities.

Within two hours of sentencing, several dozen people in Salt Lake City protested, linking themselves together and blocking traffic. Police arrested 26, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune. Dozens of peaceful demonstrations occurred at federal courthouses throughout the country, the people energized and angry that the government pursued charges against an activist who had help prove the auction he had stopped was illegal.

Robert Redford, actor/director and environmental activist, summed up the hypocrisy of the prosecution: “He just did what he thought was his constitutional right. In the meantime we have all these guys on Wall Street sending this country into the tank. And no one’s going to jail. No one’s even being brought to justice.”

Not long after his arrest, DeChristopher formed Peaceful Upraising, an organization devoted to protecting the environment.

In September, DeChristopher will enter the Harvard Divinity School on a full scholarship; after three years of study, he will earn a master of divinity degree, with the intent to be ordained as a Unitarian minister.

On Earth Day this year, the day after DeChristopher was released, among thousands of activities throughout the world, 50 venues broadcast Bidder 70, a compelling 73-minute documentary by Beth and George Gage. They had spent three years researching and producing the story of a man who helped uncover illegal activities by the government, yet was imprisoned. Henry David Thoreau, who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes that supported the illegal Mexican–American War, 1846–1848 (known by Mexicans as the American Invasion) would be proud.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: walterbrasch@gmail.com. Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.