Update July 26th, 2011: Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison, three years probation, and a $10,000 fine for the bogus bidding described in this post. See updated information HERE.
An environmental activist who tainted an auction of oil and gas drilling leases Friday by bidding up parcels of land by hundreds of thousands of dollars without any intention of paying for them may face Federal charges. This generated numerous Utah media stories; here's a list of the most significant:
-- "BLM oil and gas lease sale 'criminal', Redford says", Deseret News, December 18th
-- "Lawsuit and protests drive oil and gas lease-sale prices down", Deseret News, December 19th
-- "Imposter monkeywrenches mineral lands bid", Salt Lake Tribune, December 19th
-- "Environmentalist causes problems at BLM auction", KSL Channel 5 with video, December 19th
-- "Activist defends his lease tactics", Deseret News, December 21st
-- "Fake bidder should stop using oil, gas", Deseret News editorial, December 21st
Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student and environmental activist, was one of an estimated 200 protestors who showed up at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction on Friday December 19th to oppose the auctioning of oil and gas leases located in areas considered to be environmentally-sensitive, particularly around Arches and Canyonlands Parks. However, he decided to up the ante, and, as he admitted during this Deseret News interview, set out to sabotage the process by making false bids to drive up the prices. KSL video embedded below:
DeChristopher won the bidding on 13 parcels, auction records show, and drove up the price of several other pieces of land. He snapped up 22,500 acres of land around Arches and Canyonlands parks but then announced that he could afford to pay for only a few of those acres. He owes $1.7 million on all of his leases. As a result, the process was thrown into chaos and the bidding halted for a time before the sale of 132 parcels covering 164,000 acres was concluded.
"He's tainted the entire auction," said Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Utah. Buyers will have 10 days to reconsider and withdraw their bids, Hoffman said. BLM official Terry Catlin also said the agency didn't want to reopen the bidding on the parcels DeChristopher snagged unless all interested parties were able to compete for the leases. That means the parcels won't be available again until at least February -- after Obama takes office -- during the next scheduled auction.
The FBI questioned DeChristopher after the auction, but then released him. The case is being referred to the U.S. Attorney's office, and DeChristopher expects to be charged.
DeChristopher reports that he has been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from reporters and supporters ever since he took action. In response, he granted an interview to the Deseret News on December 21st.
During the interview, DeChristopher explained that his activism and involvement in environmental issues had been building for years after he first realized the need for a more critical stance from the public and their officials.
DeChristopher moved to Utah three years ago for a job in wilderness therapy, but he has maintained an interest in environmental issues his whole life. He remembers from his childhood the times his mother dragged him along to court for cases she was fighting against coal companies in West Virginia. DeChristopher said it was his parents who taught him the value of the environment and the need to preserve it well beyond his or anyone else's lifetime.
He started like many activists: writing letters, creating signs, protesting, writing speeches and meeting with public officials. But soon he felt that his voice was falling on deaf ears. "I waited and waited and waited for results," DeChristopher said. "And I had to deal with the fact I might be the person, I might be the hope for a better future for myself. It was a scary thought, but I believed in my ability to make a difference." It was this development in thought that DeChristopher said prepared him to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him during the bidding.
For weeks, the sale has drawn complaints from environmental groups and scathing criticism from Robert Redford. Activists said the sale would threaten Utah's wild lands and spoil the view from some of the state's spectacular national parks with drilling rigs. They challenged proposed leases near Arches National Park, the White River, the greater Desolation Canyon region, Labyrinth Canyon, the benches east of Canyonlands National Park, Nine Mile Canyon, the Book Cliffs and the Deep Creek Mountains.
Objections also came from the National Park Service, members of Congress and John Podesta, the head of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team. In the face of the outrage, the BLM scaled back its original proposal to lease 360,000 acres. Friday's sale included 149,000 acres in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand and San Juan counties.
Analysis: Obviously, it would be fruitless to force Tim DeChristopher to pay the $1.7 million. He hasn't got that type of money, and it would be vindictive.
But it would be appropriate to have him pay a fine equal to twice the cost of not only Friday's auction, but the replacement auction projected for February if they follow though. DeChristopher may think his motives are pure, but his sabotage cost the taxpayers money. Our money, that is. He needs to reimburse us.