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McEntee: He did wrong, but, in the end, DeChristopher was right

Published September 15, 2012 11:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Now that a federal court has rejected his appeals, Tim DeChristopher will spend the next seven months in a minimum-security prison in a Denver suburb.

It's a shame because the environmentalist and monkey-wrencher of a federal oil-and-gas auction is a fundamentally principled, intelligent and articulate man who is convinced that corporations have overtaken this nation's economy and politics.

Look around. It's all but impossible to disagree. Big money, banks, oil, coal and billionaire industrialists have spent huge amounts to amass the political clout they need to preserve what they have and procure what they want.

DeChristopher also got the two-year term because, after conviction and before sentencing, he kept talking publicly about climate change and civil disobedience. That angered his trial judge, Dee Benson, who told him that if he had kept his mouth shut, he might not even have been prosecuted.

The eco-activist contended he was sent to prison in retaliation for insisting on his First Amendment right to free speech. The appeals court threw out that argument.

His "statements that he would 'continue to fight' and his view that it was 'fine to break the law' were highly relevant to these sentencing factors," the judges wrote.

At his federal trial in Salt Lake City, DeChristopher and his attorneys also were not allowed to offer a "necessity defense" — which is that he chose to break the law and place the bogus bids to prevent a greater injustice: drilling that could do irreparable harm to public lands, some near Dinosaur National Monument and Arches National Park.

All must have been stinging defeats. But, in so many ways, DeChristopher has emerged a winner. A folk hero of sorts in the environmental movement, he has become the embodiment of modern activism on climate justice and preservation of our irreplaceable natural wonders.

A few months ago, he told a Salt Lake Tribune colleague in a prison interview that climate catastrophe likely could not be prevented, but it's possible that poor people and nations could be protected from the brunt of it.

The group Peaceful Uprising he helped found remains active, protesting destructive energy development.

As an inmate, DeChristopher reads magazines, writes and, given his circumstances, has taken on prison reform as yet another cause. That's what an idealist does. From Margaret Sanger to Bill McKibben and a host of other activists before him, he has the patience and fortitude to do what he needs to do now: serve his time.

And then, as a free man, return to the fight he learned from his mother as she defied the big companies that sheer off West Virginia mountaintops to expose coal layers where miners still routinely die.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.