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Tim DeChristopher Trial Begins In Utah's Oil-Gas Lease Auction Case

Tim Dechristopher

JENNIFER DOBNER   02/28/11 10:01 PM ET   AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of activists marched to the federal courthouse Monday to support a man who became an environmental folk hero by faking the purchase of $1.7 million of federal oil-and-gas drilling leases in an act of civil disobedience.

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.

DeChristopher's fate will be in the hands of a jury – eight men and four women – once opening statements are made in the case on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last until Friday.

The possibility of just one juror sympathetic to environmental causes could keep DeChristopher from a conviction, although a hung jury could result in him being retried.

Prosecutors have offered DeChristopher multiple plea deals over the past two years, but he rejected those, opting instead to go to trial.

The trial attracted about 400 people wearing orange sashes as a symbol of solidarity, including actress Daryl Hannah. They 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."

DeChristopher doesn't dispute the facts of the case 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, he grabbed bidder's paddle No. 70 at the final drilling 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, who plans to testify, has said the government violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

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

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.

On Monday, the protesters – from toddler to seniors – marched through downtown to a plaza across from the courthouse where they continued with speech-making and singing, some led by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary. The group also staged a mock trial with participants standing nearly 9 feet tall on stilts and wearing oversized papier-mache masks representing DeChristopher, the government and a NASA climate change expert.

"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.

DeChristopher was not at the rally, but he raised his arm and waved to the loudly cheering crowd as he entered the courthouse.

Hannah, who has been a visible figure in many environmental causes, called him a "bright, beautiful example" of the kind of activism needed across the country, particularly at a time when people are "at the bottom of feeling their disempowerment."

Hannah said she believes DeChristopher's actions already have been proven justified because a federal judge turned back the leases.

"He took a moral stand against injustice. ... He's already been effective," Hannah said. "This case has the potential to be quite historic and pivotal in terms of our rights as citizens to peacefully protest and practice civil disobedience."

Filming outside the courthouse was Telluride, Colo., filmmaker George Gage, who with his wife has spent more than two years working on an hour-long documentary about DeChristopher. A rough cut of the film will debut at Colorado's Mountainfilm Festival at the end of May, Gage said. Gage also hopes the project will be accepted by Utah's Sundance Film Festival for a screening. The festival was founded by actor and director Robert Redford, who is also a DeChristopher supporter.

"I just think his whole message is so important," George Gage, 70, said. "We were really impressed by what motivated him. He is so much aware that we are wrecking this planet ... Tim is really concerned about what kind of world that his children or my grandchildren are going to inherit."

The protest march had at least one detractor. Highland real estate agent 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."

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Filed by Joanna Zelman  |