He didn't pour sugar into a bulldozer's gas tank. He didn't spike a tree or set a billboard on fire. But wielding only a bidder's paddle, a University of Utah student just as surely monkey-wrenched a federal oil- and gas-lease sale Friday, ensuring that thousands of acres near two southern Utah national parks won't be opened to drilling anytime soon.
Tim DeChristopher, 27, faces possible federal charges after winning bids totaling about $1.8 million on more than 10 lease parcels that he admits he has neither the intention nor the money to buy -- and he's not sorry.
"I decided I could be much more effective by an act of civil disobedience," he said during an impromptu streetside news conference during an afternoon blizzard. "There comes a time to take a stand."
The Sugar House resident -- questioned and released after disrupting a U.S. Bureau of Land Management lease auction of 149,000 acres of public land in scenic southern and eastern Utah -- said he came to the BLM's state office in Salt Lake City to join about 200 other activists in a peaceful protest outside the building Friday morning. But then he registered with the BLM as representing himself and went to the auction room.
There, he thought about the times he has marched, fired off letters to his congressmen, signed petitions and supported environmental organizations -- all to no avail.
"What the environmental movement has been doing for the past 20 years hasn't worked," DeChristopher said. "It's time for a conflict. There's a lot at stake."
Plainclothes Salt Lake City police officers were in the room during the auction, the last to be held under the Bush administration. BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson said the agency requested law-enforcement help due to perceived threats over the hotly disputed sale.
Another man also was detained and questioned about the possibility that he and DeChristopher had committed federal offenses by trying to impede the bidding process, BLM officials said. That man registered as Kent Boardman, of Salt Lake City,
Since the Election Day announcement of the lease sale, preservationists, conservationists, archaeologists, business owners, river runners, anglers and hunters have registered objections to the BLM's plans to allow drilling in some of Utah's most scenic redrock desert.
They challenged proposed leases near Arches National Park, the White River, the greater Desolation Canyon region, Labyrinth Canyon, the benches east of Canyonlands National Park, Nine Mile Canyon, the Book Cliffs and the Deep Creek Mountains.
Objections also have come from the National Park Service, members of Congress and John Podesta, the head of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, who said the lease sale should be halted or altered to accommodate environmental concerns.
In the face of the outrage, the BLM pulled back from its original proposal to lease 360,000 acres. Friday's sale included 149,000 acres in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand and San Juan counties. The BLM said it sold 116 of 131 parcels (including DeChristopher's bids) for a total of $7.5 million.
Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said it was unusual to see a lease list trimmed so drastically. "The BLM was under a lot of pressure, unfairly," she said.
The auction had been under way for a couple of hours when energy company representatives became suspicious of a man wearing an old red down parka after he won bids on more than 10 parcels numbered consecutively, all around Arches and Canyonlands.
They told BLM officials that the man, brandishing bidding paddle No. 70 and unknown to the regular buyers, also seemed to be bidding up on parcels, raising prices on leases that others eventually won.
The auctioneer took a break and police asked the man, later identified as DeChristopher, to leave the room. After questioning him for more than an hour behind closed doors, BLM and law-enforcement officials requested assistance from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The federal attorneys' spokeswoman, Melodie Rydalch, confirmed the office was conducting an investigation, but declined to provide more details.
During the confusion that followed DeChristopher's removal, Sgamma said she had seen Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney David Garbett "communicating" with DeChristopher during the auction. She questioned whether SUWA had been acting in concert with the man the BLM dubbed a "nuisance bidder."
Garbett, however, said he gave DeChristopher his business card and asked him to call SUWA after the holidays because he had won parcels included in a federal lawsuit SUWA had filed against the lease sale.
After the auction, Kent Hoffman, the BLM's state deputy director for lands and minerals, announced there had been a bogus bidder. But the false bidder was "on the hook to pay," Hoffman said.
"Good," said a woman in the auction room. "Make them pay."
Hoffman said successful bidders who believed their offers had been run up illegally due could withdraw their bids.
BLM official Terry Catlin said the agency didn't want to reopen the bidding on the parcels DeChristopher snagged unless all interested parties were able to compete for the leases. That means the parcels won't be available again until at least February -- after Obama takes office -- during the next scheduled auction.
DeChristopher, who acknowledged upping other bids by about $500,000, 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.
"If that's what it takes," he said.