The wilderness areas of southern Utah are some of the most beautiful and fragile places in North America, formed and preserved through eons of geologic time by the arid stillness of the desert. Here a single footprint or a set of tires, easily crushing the delicate soil crust, asphyxiating the slow-growing microbes, lichens, and mosses that make vegetative life possible in this harsh terrain, can set the ecosystem back millennia.
On December 19, a sweetheart auction of drilling rights to these public lands by the outgoing Bush administration’s Bureau of Land Management, opposed by a host of local and national environmental groups and even by other branches of the Interior Department, was confused and brought to an early halt by a single monkeywrenching student at the University of Utah, Tim DeChristopher, who posed as a bidder to disrupt the sale. The auction was cut short and DeChristopher was arrested by the FBI’s “Utah Energy Team,” but not before driving up the bids at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to oil companies and disingenuously “winning” leases on 22,000 acres of public lands near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument, successfully putting them out of reach of the Bush administration.
The BLM had hastened to hold the sale in the eleventh hour of the departing administration with as much speed and secrecy as possible, announcing the auction on the evening of election day, bypassing environmental review and keeping its plans secret from the National Park Service to head off internal opposition. When DeChristopher showed up unexpectedly to unravel their plans, representatives of the slighted interests were left in sputtering indignation. Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the BLM in Utah, declared, “He’s tainted the entire auction.” Utah’s second-largest paper, The Deseret (sic) News, called on DeChristopher to “apologize to every one of the legitimate oil and gas developers whose day you disrupted,” and to develop more appreciation for the benefits of “gas and oil and… other products bequeathed to us humans by dinosaurs and other ancient creatures and plants.”
But the auction, tremendously unpopular and widely viewed as illegitimate, may now have completely unraveled in the face of prominent opposition. “This area in southern Utah is the land of my youth,” said Rep. Brian Baird of Washington, who grew up in Colorado and is co-chair of the congressional National Parks Caucus. “Its beauty is stunning, its silence is deafening and it is simply no place for an oil derrick.” In January, a federal judge put the leases on hold pending further environmental review, and on Wednesday, February 4, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar scrapped the auction altogether.
While a broad coalition of environmental groups share credit in this victory, DeChristopher’s actions to disrupt the auction brought national attention to the struggle. “What Tim did was in the best tradition of civil disobedience,” said Patrick Shea, a former director of the BLM and a member of DeChristopher’s legal defense team. DeChristopher’s courage came from confidence of the justice of his stand, which sustained him afterwards as he made a circuit of national media outlets in the days following, poignantly exposing the criminality of oil industry lackeys in the Bush administration whose veneer of legitimacy proved extremely thin. A fundraiser in DeChristopher’s honor packed a Salt Lake City church to capacity and was hosted by Salt Lake’s popular former mayor, Rocky Anderson. There DeChristopher told the crowd that it’s time for environmentalists to stop playing ball. “Our team is getting slaughtered. The referees have been paid off. There’s no rules, and the other side is playing with dirty tricks. It’s time for us to rush the field.”
He’s right. The governments of both parties have long rigged the system to facilitate the steady destruction of our common heritage and the despoliation of places of both common and exceptional beauty, while environmental groups have spent too much time dutifully lobbying and going to court to beg for scraps. Now that increasing numbers of people are realizing that time is short to save what’s left, it’s time to change the rules and press our advantages. If young people, having spent less time as supplicants in the halls of power, are sometimes able to see the course of action more clearly, it falls upon us to take the lead. “The greatest enemy of authority is contempt,” wrote Hannah Arendt in a famous essay from the 1960s. Where the legitimacy of the status quo has slowly eroded, only a confrontation is needed for the edifice to crumble. “We know of many instances when utterly impotent regimes were permitted to continue in existence for long periods of time—either because there was no one to test their strength and reveal their weakness or because they were lucky enough not be engaged… and suffer defeat. Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation.” American history abounds with good examples of this. Today, a gleaming statue of Rosa Parks, who was arrested fifty-three years ago, graces Eugene’s downtown bus station, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday. There are no statues honoring Bull Connor or Strom Thurmond, and nobody celebrates their birthdays.
You can find updates on Tim DeChristopher’s legal troubles and contribute to his defense at www.bidder70.org.