Tim DeChristopher pleaded "not guilty" Tuesday to disrupting a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction in December and pledged to use his prosecution to attack policies he says are allowing climate change to careen out of control.
About 200 supporters rallied for the 27-year-old University of Utah student at the downtown Salt Lake City library and marched with him to the federal courthouse, where he was arraigned and his weeklong trial was scheduled to begin July 6.
DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison but he told his supporters that those consequences did not compare with the starvation and homelessness millions will suffer around the world if climate change is not stopped.
"Until [U.S. Attorney for Utah] Brett Tolman can start dishing out punishment penalties like that, I'm not going to back down, and I need to know you are not going to back down, either," he told a cheering crowd.
A grand jury indicted DeChristopher on two felony counts in connection with his bogus bid on oil and gas leases. He submitted winning bids on 13 parcels, though he never intended to pay the $1.8 million owed.
The two counts -- interfering with an auction with intent to "defeat" the federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and making false and fraudulent representations when registering for an auction -- also carry a $750,000 fine.
"They're trying to scare all of you," he told the crowd, many of them carrying posters with his bidder number, 70. "They're trying to discourage all of you from standing up."
As DeChristopher walked to the courthouse at the head of a line of supporters, climate scientist James E. Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration walked alongside him much of the way. Hansen called DeChristopher's actions "extremely important." Hansen thanked him for providing a platform to test a new legal argument regarding climate change: the notion described in a letter by Thomas Jefferson that "we are using property that belongs to others, to our children and grandchildren and future generations."
Despite protesters' assertion that the case is about larger principles, Utah Petroleum Association President Lee Peacock says it's simply about rules and fairness.
"We abide by the rules that are in place," Peacock said of industry bidders. "We feel like all sides of any particular issue ought to abide by the rules."
He would not comment about DeChristopher's pleas, other than to say they did not surprise him.
Critics have said DeChristopher sabotaged a legal federal proceeding and deprived legitimate bidders of their right to secure leases. Supporters of DeChristopher point out that the lease sale was later halted by a federal judge and 77 of the most disputed parcel leases were halted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Before starting off on the march to the federal courthouse, DeChristopher attorney Pat Shea urged everyone to obey traffic laws and behave once they reached the courthouse. Inside the courtroom, dozens watched silently.
Shea, a former BLM director under President Clinton, will be joined in DeChristopher's defense by noted defense attorney Ron Yengich.
At the prosecution's request, Magistrate Judge David Nuffer ordered DeChristopher to remain in the United States until his trial, and to surrender his passport to Yengich until further notice. He also set June 22 as deadline for any plea agreement.
Federal prosecutor John Huber said he saw the protest marchers before the arraignment, but he would not comment about their action or the case.
After the arraignment, Shea declined to discuss how the team will defend a man who admits disrupting the auction.
"That'll come out with trial," he said.
Shea told supporters after the court appearance that DeChristopher was meeting with a probation officer and getting fingerprinted. The attorney urged supporters to keep up their efforts. "We're going to have a long march."
Kelli Bellon of Salt Lake City was protesting outside the BLM offices Dec. 19, the day DeChristopher bid on the 13 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
"I can't imagine not being supportive of Tim after he's gone out on a limb for us," said the mother of two. "It's huge that he's being prosecuted."
University of Utah economics professor Hans Ehrbar said he was disappointed that more supporters didn't show up Tuesday.
"People are ready to clap if someone else acts, but the urgency has not yet sunk in."