Trial Begins in Utah Oil-Gas Lease Auction Case

By Jennifer Dobner | February 28, 2011 | 12:48 PM EST

Salt Lake City (AP) - About 400 environmental activists marched to the federal courthouse Monday to support a man facing trial this week on charges that he thwarted a 2008 oil-and-gas lease auction to bring attention to climate change.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court to felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction, although he doesn't dispute the facts of the case. Jury selection begins Monday and the twice-delayed trial is expected to last about four days.

DeChristopher, who plans to testify, has called his bidding an act of civil disobedience and has said he expects to be convicted. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he's right.

On Dec. 19, 2008, DeChristopher grabbed bidder's paddle No. 70 at the final lease auction of the Bush administration and ran up prices while snapping up 13 leases on parcels totaling 22,500 acres around Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

The former wilderness guide - a University of Utah economics student at the time - ended up with $1.7 million in leases he couldn't pay for and cost angry oil men hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.

"We were hosed," said Jason Blake of Park City, shortly after the consulting geologist was outbid on a 320-acre parcel. "It's very frustrating."

DeChristopher later offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.

DeChristopher has said the administration of former President George W. Bush violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

Federal prosecutors have acknowledged that DeChristopher is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah.

"There's people who didn't have the money, but they didn't have the intent to disrupt" the auction, assistant U.S. attorney John Huber told The Associated Press in 2009.

DeChristopher's actions have made him a folk hero among some environmentalists.

On Monday, supporters wearing orange sashes as a symbol of solidarity gathered in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park for an early morning rally, singing Pete Seeger's famous protest song "If I Had Hammer," shouting chants against government control of public lands and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to be "set free." Among those at the rally was actress Daryl Hannah and Utah author and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams.

"I'm here to support Tim, whose selfless act saved Utah's red rock wilderness from exploitation," said Salt Lake City resident Sheri Poe Bernard, 55, who said she believes the lease parcels were not properly reviewed for environmental impact. "This is a very important issue ... and I think it's a travesty that our federal government would put Tim on trial when George W. Bush is not being prosecuted."

Bernard said she wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to take notice of DeChristopher's trial and make Utah ground zero for a national conversation about climate change.

The protest march had at least one detractor. Highland realtor Robert Valentine mingled with environmentalists and talked about the need for Utah to "exploit" its natural resources to create jobs and fund the state's schools.

"I want to protect the natural resources. My hobby is hiking," the 69-year-old Valentine said. "But I think Utah ought to be allowed to have more control over the resources more than we do."

Protest organizers plan to rally daily throughout the trial on a public plaza across from the court and fill the seats in Judge Dee Benson's courtroom.