Tim DeChristopher stood alone Friday when he placed bogus bids on drilling parcels near two Utah national parks, single-handedly sabotaging an oil- and gas-lease sale that caught the attention of Congress and the incoming Obama administration.
Now, the 27-year-old University of Utah economics student stands with powerful new friends, including Pat Shea, former head of the Bureau of Land Management; Utah's most prominent defense attorney, Ron Yengich; and hundreds of supporters promising to contribute to his legal-defense fund.
Others led him to this point, inspiring DeChristopher to oppose a government he fears is leading the world to climate disaster. His mother, Christine, helped start the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and took him as a small child to anti-coal rallies. Terry Root, a Stanford University scientist who worked with Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put her hand on DeChristopher's shoulder and apologized for being too late to avert the worst effects of global warming. And Gore called on young people to commit acts of civil disobedience to stop greenhouse-gas belching coal-fired power plants.
"I don't ever want to have to look back at 2008 and know that there was still a slight chance that we could have done something to make a difference, and I didn't take that chance," DeChristopher said Monday. "Ethically, I have to pursue that chance."
That pursuit could land him in federal court.
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City, said Monday that her office hadn't seen the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's investigative report. Federal prosecutors likely will do their own inquiry on whether DeChristopher's case should be brought before a grand jury, which wouldn't happen for weeks.
"The process is just starting," Rydalch said. "It will take time to evaluate evidence and make a determination whether we will prosecute."
BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson said Monday the agency was considering what to do next. " This is so unprecedented," she said, "we don't know what our options are."
One possibility: Redo the lease auction. Normally, the agency must give 30 days' notice. But the BLM might be able to bypass that rule, Wilson said, by offering a shorter public-review period.
Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said her organization had no plans to take action against DeChristopher.
"We just hope the U.S. Attorney's Office makes sure this doesn't happen again," she said.
Mainstream conservation organizations, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which opposed the lease sale, remained on the sidelines.
"It's not clear whether this individual has broken any laws," Executive Director Scott Groene said Monday. "But SUWA doesn't condone any illegal activity."
Shea, who with Yengich is representing DeChristopher, said he stepped forward to help the student because when Shea was the BLM boss, anonymous protesters took destructive actions against the public-lands agency. By contrast, Shea said, DeChristopher has "integrity of purpose" that deserves protection in court.
BLM officials said DeChristopher bid $1.8 million -- which he has neither the intention nor the money to pay -- for more than 10 lease parcels near Arches and Canyonlands while driving up other bids by about $500,000.
After other oil and gas bidders complained, BLM special agents escorted out DeChristopher and his roommate, Kent Boardman, for a closed-door interview as the auction proceeded.
DeChristopher said Monday -- during an interview at his ad-hoc strategy center at the back of the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City -- that his conversation with the agents was open and honest. He told them he believed the auction was the real fraud, that it had been rushed through to beat the clock on the lame-duck Bush administration.
"I also felt it had been a threat to my future," he said, "and, in response to that, this was a conscious act of civil disobedience."
The agents spent even more time with Boardman. DeChristopher said they may have been trying to determine whether there had been some kind of conspiracy.
Rather, Boardman was surprised the first time his roomie raised bidding paddle No. 70.
"He said, 'What are you doing?' " DeChristopher recalled. Then, after DeChristopher won a bid, Boardman said, "'Do you have a plan?' "
DeChristopher said he acted because less brazen tactics weren't working to stop the drilling leases. To him, the big picture includes catastrophic famine, millions of refugees and an agricultural system killed off by climate disruption.
Meeting Terry Root, a speaker at this year's Wallace Stegner symposium at the U. law school, still resonates with DeChristopher: "There were things we could have done in the '80s, things we could have done in the '90s, but at this point, we're too late, my generation has failed you, and I'm sorry,' " the student recalled Root saying.
"That was a very powerful experience for me," DeChristopher said. "It really rocked me."
Frankly, he said, he was hoping for someone else to come along to take action. Yet in an essay he posted Saturday on the Web blog oneutah.org, DeChristopher quoted from June Jordan's 1980 "Poem for South African Women," when he wrote, "Hopefully all of us will realize that we are the ones we have been waiting for."
It's down to the wire, DeChristopher said, "down to one of our last opportunities here in the next couple of years to make drastic changes in order to ensure a livable future."
During a "Democracy Now" radio interview Monday morning, DeChristopher reiterated that he was willing to do prison time, but preferred staying free.
"I don't want to be a martyr or anything like that," he said.