Tim’s Story

Read an updated version of this article on the new official Tim DeChristopher website. http://timdechristopher.org

Tim DeChristopher came to Utah in his early 20s to work as a wilderness guide for at-risk and troubled youth. Tim was born in West Virginia, where his mother was an early advocate for the cessation of mountaintop removal coal mining. In 2008 as a student of Economics, Tim attended the Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah, where he was greatly moved and galvanized by Dr. Terry Root, a scientist for the International Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Root explained to the audience that elements of the climate crisis were already irreversible. Tim confronted Terry after her presentation and asked her if it were true that many species, natural wonders and bioregions were in imminent peril. Terry put her hand on Tim’s shoulder and said the following: “I am so sorry, but my generation failed yours.” Those words haunted Tim, and dramatically changed his personal worldview.

While Tim was taking his final exams at the University of Utah, advocates for Utah’s wilderness like Robert Redford and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance were attempting to bring attention to a controversial auction of Utah public lands, orchestrated by the outgoing Bush Administration. The auction included parcels adjacent to cherished natural resources like Canyonlands National Park. SUWA and other regional advocates brought a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management in efforts to halt the auction pending further review and public comment. Through no fault of SUWA or their allies, the lawsuit could not settle the issue prior to the auction. On December 19th, Tim finished his last final exam and took TRAX to the protest that SUWA and others had organized outside of the auction. On arrival, Tim decided that the protest needed to be moved from outside of the auction to inside, where the action was happening. With no prior plan of action, Tim entered the building where the auction was held and approached the registration desk. When asked if he was there to bid, Tim made a quick decision. He registered as Bidder 70 and entered the auction.

Tim intended to stand up and make a speech or create some other kind of disruption. Once inside, however, Tim recognized the opportunity to stop the auction in a more effective, enduring fashion. He sat quietly with his bidder paddle lowered, until he saw a friend from his church openly weeping at the sterile transfer of beloved red rock lands away from the public trust and into the hands of energy giants. It was then that Tim decided to act.

At first, Tim simply pushed up the parcels’ prices (some starting as low as two dollars per acre, and were ultimately sold for $240 per acre). Once almost half of the parcels had been sold to oil and gas companies, Tim felt he could no longer bear to lose any more public lands. Tim bid on and won every subsequent parcel, until he was recognized as an outlier and escorted from the auction. Once it was revealed that Tim did not have the intent or the means to pay for the parcels he won, the auction erupted in chaos. Because Tim won so many parcels and inflated the prices of so many others, the auction had to be shut down. Due to the requisite thirty-day period between a canceled auction and its rescheduled successor, the incoming administration took office before the auction could be rescheduled. Upon review of the parcels in question, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar dismissed the auction, declaring that the BLM had cut corners and broken many of its own rules, including a crucial statute requiring all federal agencies to take the impacts on our climate into account prior to auctioning off public lands for the purpose of energy development.

Tim’s action garnered a great deal of media and public attention, and catalyzed an overwhelming influx of support and applause for his creative, effective, and nonviolent act of civil disobedience, which ultimately safeguarded thousands of acres of Utah public lands. Tim’s bold act, coupled with his personal charisma and the gravity of his motivation, brought enthusiastic activists out of the Utah woodwork. Together with other activists who were equally concerned about the climate crisis and inspired by the effectiveness of Tim’s action, including current Director Ashley Anderson, Tim founded Peaceful Uprising, a volunteer-based climate action group committed to defending a livable future from the fossil fuel industry.

Tim’s action on December 19th radically changed the course of his life. After the current administration decided to indict Tim, despite the confirmed auction’s illegality, Tim took his message to the widest possible audience to bring attention to the desperate need for effective action to combat the climate crisis. Tim also emphasized the ways in which his action had positively impacted his own life. “Ed Abbey used to say, ‘Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul,’” Tim said, addressing the crowd at 350.org’s 10/24 International Day of Climate Action. “I would take that a little further, and say that principled action is the salvation of the soul. I may have to go to prison, but every day since that auction, I walk a little taller, and I feel a little more free.”

It took the federal government more than two years to convict and sentence Tim. The trial was delayed a total of nine times by the Prosecution. Federal Judge Dee Benson dismissed Tim’s initial defense (the “Necessity Defense,” claiming that Tim’s crime was the lesser of two evils when weighed against the threats posed by the illegal auction). The Defense’s assertion of Selective Prosecution (as no other bidder had ever been indicted for failing to pay for parcels at an auction) was also dismissed. The threat of climate catastrophe that motivated Tim was banned from the courtroom and kept from the ears of the jury, as were the fact that Tim managed to raised adequate funds for initial payments on the parcels after the auction; the fact of the auction’s confirmed illegality; and the dismissal of multiple parcels.

Despite the multiple rescheduled dates, climate activists, organizers, and advocates from all over the country came to Salt Lake City for Tim’s trial to demonstrate their solidarity with a brave young man willing to offer up his own future to fight for the future of our planet. Supporters marched to the federal courthouse, where they remained for the trial’s duration, singing revolutionary songs and never leaving the Courthouse steps despite freezing rain and rough weather. Tim often expresses his own deep faith in the power of song, to unite people and empower them to act without fear. Referring to environmental and climate justice advocates in America, Tim summed up his own perspective: “We will be a movement,” he frequently stated, “when we sing like a movement.”

On March 3, 2011, after hours of jury deliberation, Tim was convicted of two federal felonies: one count of false representation, and one count of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. Between his conviction and his sentencing hearing, Tim was able to tour the country, speaking to college students, climate activists and progressive audiences in every region. He assured supporters that he was fearless and unremorseful about his actions, and urged activists to be bold and brave in the fight for climate justice. Tim reminded his audiences that all meaningful social change in American history has required nonviolent civil disobedience. Tim urged activists to take the long view, and be ready to go to jail to defend their principles and their cause. “We don’t need to figure out how to keep me out of jail,” Tim explained to a concerned Santa Fe supporter. “We need to figure out how to get more people into jail.”

On July 26th, 2011, Tim was sentenced to two years in federal prison. In the pre-sentencing report, the Prosecution openly admitted that Tim himself was not a threat to society or at risk to reoffend; the stated purpose of the sentence was to deter other activists from taking similar action to further the climate movement. In his final statement to the Judge, Tim said that he understood why the Prosecution saw him as a threat. “[My message] may indeed be threatening to the power structure,” he said. “The message is about recognizing our interconnectedness. The 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.”

After his sentence was issued, Tim was removed immediately from the courtroom and taken into the custody of federal agents. 26 people were arrested outside the Salt Lake City courthouse, and 26 solidarity actions happened at federal courthouses throughout the United States. The demonstrations were intended to express supporters’ outrage, and more importantly, to illustrate the climate movement’s undeterred commitment to continued action. Tim’s conclusion to his final statement to the courtroom at his sentencing hearing crystallized his own personal stake in that commitment:

“You can steer my commitment to a healthy and just world if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like.  In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”

Tim was released from prison on April 21, 2013 and is now on a 3 year probation. Tim will be attending Harvard Divinity School this fall and is currently touring with Bidder 70 and speaking about his experiences over the last four years.