January 2, 2009

Land-auction meddler has a new plan

Drilling foe hopes to raise $45,000 to keep the parcels until Obama steps in.

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

Tim DeCristopher after he was escorted out of the BLM offices in Salt Lake City following his fraudulent bids on several oil and gas leases during a BLM auction. Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune

The University of Utah student who foiled a federal oil and gas lease auction the Friday before Christmas hopes he can buy time for Utah's scenic redrock desert - and himself - until the Bush administration is out the door.

Tim DeChristopher announced Wednesday afternoon that he would pay the U.S. Bureau of Land Management $45,000 to hold the 13 lease parcels he won in a Dec. 19 sale. His aim is to fend off drilling at least until President-elect Barack Obama takes office and new officials are in charge of the federal Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management.

"This would be the most effective way of ensuring we could protect the land, at least until the new administration came in," DeChristopher said.

The 27-year-old economics major faces possible federal felony charges after winning bids totaling about $1.8 million on 13 lease parcels that he admitted he had neither the intention nor the money to pay for.

But since committing what he called an act of civil disobedience, DeChristopher has heard from hundreds of individuals around the country willing to chip in to keep drill rigs off the land and DeChristopher out of prison.

So far, would-be benefactors have pledged $14,000, he said.

DeChristopher, his lawyers and other advisers reckoned that if there were a specific reason for the fundraising, rather than just an ill-defined defense fund, enough money would roll in to allow him to write a $45,000 check to the BLM within the next couple of weeks.

"If I follow through on purchasing the leases, it makes it simply a question of my intent in opposing what I thought was a fraudulent auction," DeChristopher said.

The amount is based on a percentage of the $1.8 million; the agency requires such payments of all bidders to hold their parcels. Three Web sites have been set up to take pledges.

BLM special agents questioned and released the Sugar House resident after he disrupted the auction of 149,000 acres of public land in scenic southern and eastern Utah. The 13 bids he won by raising his auction paddle were on 22,000 acres of land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

DeChristopher admitted he ran up other bids by about $500,000 and said he would be willing to go to jail to defend his generation's prospects in light of global climate disruption and other environmental threats.

Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Salt Lake City, said Wednesday the investigation into DeChristopher's actions are continuing. Prosecutors would have to decide whether to take the case to a grand jury for possible indictment.

Defense attorney Ron Yengich and former BLM Director Pat Shea, an attorney, are representing DeChristopher.

Shea said Wednesday his client could face several felony charges with penalties that could include substantial fines and a prison term. Shea also said "someone" with the federal solicitor's office suggested that because the lease sale is in flux due to legal action, paying the $45,000 might help DeChristopher.

"I can't make any predictions," he said. "We've had very good cooperation with the BLM and the U.S. Attorney's office."

Shea said he believes the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 could provide DeChristopher with some legal cover, though others argue he would be bound by the Mining Act of 1872 to develop the parcels should he buy them.