Trial of eco-activist who punk'd BLM begins
At the end of 2008, the incoming Obama administration called attempts to sell prime parcels of Bureau of Land Management land near Utah's national parks improper and told the Bush administration to stop. But the person who did the most to halt the sales was a former guide and University of Utah student named Tim DeChristopher.
DeChristopher, then 27, entered the BLM auction in Salt Lake City in late December and bid for 13 parcels of land outside Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, comprising about 22,000 acres. Days later, a federal judge put all the sales on hold and the new secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, reversed them.
But the Obama administration did not thank DeChristopher. Instead, his trial on felony charges of intefering with a federal auction began Monday, as hundreds of sympathizers protested outside the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. If convicted, DeChristopher, who admitted he had no intention of paying the $1.8 million tab he ran up at the auction, could face up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
He may have been a hero to environmentalists, but DeChristopher disrupted one of BLM's regular tasks -- auctioning off parcels of land for oil or gas exploration. Energy groups, which sued to overturn Salzar's overturning of the sales, warned that allowing DeChristopher to get away with his bids would create a fatal vulnerability in any future sale of exploration rights.
(For those keeping score at home, another federal judge has ruled that Salazar exceeded his authority in reversing the sales, but the judge did not reinstate them because the energy industry's lawsuit came a day too late.)
The U.S. attorney's office is not commenting on the case, but when it filed charges in 2009, acting U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said: “Our nation is a nation of laws, and we live by the rule of law. We recognize that individuals have deeply felt views about important public issues, and they certainly should hold and express those views. However, there are ways to express viewpoints and to press for change without violating the law, disrupting open public processes, and causing financial harm to the government and to other individuals."
Actress Darryl Hannah was one of the demonstrators outside the courthouse on Monday, as was Angel Hays of Millcreek, Utah. “The bigger picture for him was the national parks," she told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Protecting our sacred places is worth going to jail for.”
DeChristopher's trial is expected to take about four days and he is expected to testify. The judge hearing the case has ruled that DeChristopher's defense cannot bring up his motivations for his action.
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Photo: Tim DeChristopher, now 29, after he won bids on 13 parcels at a BLM auction to block the Bush administration's sale of lands in southern Utah. Photo Credit: Courtney Sargent, Deseret News