Monday, 12 January 2009

To thwart the sale of Utah wilderness to big oil, a student bid for it at auction - and won

Tim DeChristopher makes an unlikely landowner: the gangly economics student, dressed in combat trousers and a hoodie, doesn’t look as though he has ever owned anything more valuable than an iPod. As of last Friday, though, DeChristopher became the proud owner of 22,500 acres of Red Rock Desert – a magnificent symbol of the American Wild West. He hopes the $45,000 (£30,000) cheque he has just written will serve as a deposit on his chunk of Utah desert and will keep him out of prison – for now.

It’s not unusual to hear of bidders at an auction getting carried away and going over the budget they set themselves, but few can have done so in as spectacular a way as DeChristopher, an environmental enthusiast who intended to raise a gentle protest at the sale of parcels of desert land for exploration by oil and gas companies and ended up spending $1.8m (£1.2m). “I won my first bid for a parcel of land – about 220 acres – for $495. After the first rush of adrenaline, I started to relax; I knew there was no going back,” he says.

Selling the land at the auction, three weeks ago, was to be one of the last decisive acts of the George Bush administration. A row had been rumbling over the sale for some time: the American government intended to sell off 360,000 acres – on 10-year leases – for exploration but had been forced to reduce that to 150,000 acres after a vocal campaign spearheaded by the actor Robert Redford, who lives in Utah. “These lands are not Bush and Cheney’s; these are our lands,” Redford said. “How would you feel if you had an heirloom in your family that was centuries old and someone came in when you were not looking and took it away from you?”

On the day of the auction, DeChristopher was sitting his economics finals at the University of Utah. He had intended to wander down to the auction later in the day to see what was going on but was struck by one of the questions in his exam paper: “In the auction that’s happening today, if there are only oil and gas men in the room bidding on these parcels, is the final cost going to reflect the true value of developing oil?”

“The answer they were looking for was: no, it’s not,” says DeChristopher, “because there are a lot of extra costs that the rest of us pay for the development of oil – things like healthcare costs that come from pollution and the cost of mitigating climate change.”

The question was still in his mind as he arrived at the Bureau of Land Management building in Salt Lake City. About 100 protesters were marching back and forth, but there was a feeling of resignation. “All these people were holding their signs but knew it wasn’t making any difference,” says DeChristopher.

“I’d been to environmental protests before. I’ve waved signs and marched, written letters, signed petitions and spoken to my congressmen. None of it ever made any difference. I knew I had to make more of a nuisance of myself than that.”

He decided to go inside and cause a bit of disruption. Instead, something unexpected happened. An official approached him and said: “Hi, are you here for the auction?” He thought for a second. “Er, yes. I am.”

“Are you a bidder?” she asked, smiling. “Well, er, yes I am.”

DeChristopher found himself handing over his driving licence and a minute later had signed up. He took his bidding paddle, number 70, and sat down.

Remembering the exam question, he knew he could drive up the prices simply by bidding. “I sat there for about half an hour grappling with my conscience,” he says. “I knew that if I were to make a bid, there would be serious consequences. I was cautious at first – I just wanted to push up the cost of the land parcels. I didn’t want to win a bid.”

Inevitably, the scruffy, shaven-headed student began to attract attention. “I definitely stood out,” he says. “Everyone else in the room seemed to know each other, and couldn’t figure out who this kid was who was driving up the prices.”

Then it occurred to him that though his bids were making the land more expensive, they were still falling into the hands of the oil companies and would be plundered and laid to waste. If he bought some land, he could protect it from development. Never mind the fact that he didn’t have a cent to pay for it – he’d think about that later.

The lots got bigger and more expensive. “I ended up winning 12 in a row.” In all, 22,500 acres.

When the auctioneer called a five-minute break, DeChristopher knew the game was up. He was taken into custody and questioned by the bureau’s law enforcement agents and local police. “I told them why I felt I had to take serious action. It sounds like an intimidating situation but I felt they were quite sympathetic,” he says.

Four hours later he was released and gave an impromptu press conference. Since then, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

He set up a website and donations began to pour in – mostly just $10 or $20 – enabling him to meet the $45,000 deposit on the land that was required last week. As he bought 10-year leases, he argues he should be given 10 years to pay them off, and he is confident he will be able to.

Despite his high-profile opposition to the sale, DeChristopher has had no contact with Redford. He suspects this is because Redford belongs to one of America’s biggest environmental groups – the kind he has reservations about. “Their basic approach is that environmentalists should sign petitions and send donations. They want to make change one concession at a time, which gives them a seat at the table of power.”

If DeChristopher can’t come up with the balance in the next few months he could be charged with fraud and face up to three years in prison. He has resigned himself to the fact that the US attorney will probably press charges, but he has disrupted the sale for long enough to see Barack Obama take office – and that might make all the difference to what happens next.

“It’s still unclear how the new administration will deal with this,” he says. “I can only hope that President Obama follows through on his promise for a transparent government.”

Until then, he vows to keep developers off the land, even if he has to do it from a prison cell.

To support DeChristopher, visit

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