Salt Lake City does not always seem like the most interesting place to live. At first glance, it is quiet, conservative, suburban, isolated geographically and culturally from the rest of the world. The liquor laws are prosaic and the streets are empty. But if you reside here long enough and you pay attention, you begin to see that Salt Lake actually has a seething underbelly of cool. Art, music, food, architecture, science, activism—there is a flow of new ideas being born here, and they are constantly straining against the static. These things exist because people create them. People devote themselves to making Salt Lake a more beautiful, bizarre and unique place.
I believe we have a responsibility to make our world a better place, and a good place to start is in our own backyard. Pete Seeger, a personal hero of mine, says, “Learning how to do something in your hometown is the most important thing. … If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.”
Sing it Pete!
Now more than ever, we have a chance to change our lives and our world. Tim DeChristopher did just that when he staged a shakedown at the BLM auction, and woke the environmental movement from a long slumber.
I was at Tim's house taking photos, when his roommate asked,
“Does she know about the basement?”
“Oh yeah,” Tim said turning to me, “you should see this.”
He led me downstairs, through a door disguised as a bookshelf, down another flight of stairs and into an unfinished concrete room designed like a prohibition-style speakeasy bar. There were antique bottles of Grand Marnier lined up on a shelf, brown velvet theater curtains draped around tarnished mirrors, and a stage for live music in one corner. It was large enough to hold a good 50-75 people, almost larger than the whole upstairs. Even more bizarre, it was constructed out of parts salvaged from airplanes, and not many people really know it exists. Tim didn’t know about it until after he signed the lease. His dog Bernie refuses to go down there, which tells me the room has a lot to say, the kind of stuff only dogs can pick up on.
The secret basement is kind of like Tim himself—surprising and intriguing.
I met Tim last fall in a class at the University of Utah. I remember him as reserved and unassuming, but when he had something to say, it cut straight to the point like a well-sharpened blade. Poignant, articulate, you could tell he was thinking, and that he believed what he said. This kind of conviction is a rare trait in U students. I gained a certain respect for Tim, but I definitely did not expect him to do what he did next.
On December 19, Tim walked into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Salt Lake City, and disrupted an auction of 149,000 acres of Utah’s most pristine land to oil and gas developers. He registered himself as a bidder, and won 10 parcels of land for a total of $1.8 million, none of which he intended to pay.
Now the BLM and the federal government are scrambling. No one has ever done this before, and it is not clear what should happen next. The auction was an attempt by the Bush administration to expedite energy development that Obama’s administration has openly discouraged. On the weekend of January 18, 2009, a federal judge suspended the lease of the land involved in the auction. As for Tim’s fate, the US Attorney’s office is conducting an investigation, and official charges have yet to be released. It is speculated that Tim could face felony charges and time in prison.
In the meantime, the story has spread like wildfire throughout the country and across the world. People are ignited by what Tim did. Some are antagonized, others are inspired, but everyone can feel the heat. Tim has given interviews for MSNBC, CBS, NPR, Democracy Now, and newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Donations have poured in to help him pay for the land he won, and for his legal defense fund.
Gauging the response, it seems people are hungry for change. Within the environmental movement, some feel that organizations like SUWA have long been ineffective at protecting and defending Utah lands. Tim’s action was immediate and biting, and exactly what the environmental movement needed to wake up from its stupor.
Tim never expected to receive so much support and recognition, and he is prepared to go to prison. So why did he do it? How did he decide to raise his paddle, and in turn raise hell? Steven Pinker recently wrote in a New York Times article,” None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story.”
Tim says his story starts when he was born, the same year Reagan took office and convinced the American public not to mess with the power of government. Since that time, and in contrast to past eras of social upheaval, Tim believes we have been afraid to challenge authority. Despite a prevailing climate of complacency, Tim’s parents instilled in him an acute sense of environmental justice. He followed his parents to anti-coal rallies in his home state of Virginia, and saw his mother found the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
As a young adult he moved to Arizona for school, where he explored the desert and was transformed by the landscape.
“I remember the sense I had at the time was that it made me feel very small, and it was a really good feeling. I‘ve gotten used to feeling much smaller and appreciating how big the world is, and it’s had an impact on the way I think. Enough time staring at a distant horizon, makes us think big thoughts.”
Settling in Utah, Tim worked with local environmental organizations like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to protect and defend the land that had had such an impact on him. He wrote letters, signed petitions, and did trail work in national parks. It never seemed to make enough of a difference. The federal government and the BLM are perpetually exploiting Utah’s most beautiful land to produce dirty energy, which contributes to the devastating effects of climate change.
At the Wallace Stegner Symposium, Tim spoke with Terry Root from the International Panel on Climate Change, who told him it was too late to prevent climate change. It weighed heavy on Tim’s shoulders.
During fall of 2008, Tim took a class at the University of Utah about the history of American social movements, and became convinced that more drastic action would have to be taken if we wanted to protect Utah lands and mediate the effects of climate change. Historical examples showed that confrontational tactics like civil disobedience could be successful in achieving certain goals.
But Tim realized that the tactics used in even the most successful social movements of our time—civil rights, antiwar, women’s suffrage—would be ineffective in the case of global warming.
“If the environmental movement is as successful at stopping climate change as the civil rights movement was at ending racism,” Tim believes, “then we will fail to have a livable future.”
Tim hoped that someone else would orchestrate the drastic action he knew was necessary. It was scary to imagine taking that responsibility upon himself.
But when he went to the BLM office to protest the auction, he decided he was the one that had to do it. There were 120 people outside the office, marching and holding signs, and it occurred to him, “..In the face of such a fraudulent auction, I had to do something more.” So he went inside, registered as a bidder, and joined the auction.
Here, reader, we reach the point of no return. Most activists can identify the particular moment when they committed themselves to their cause, and from that point on, their lives were never the same.
For Tim, it was a moral dilemma. He saw the opportunity to make an impact, but it meant possibly going to prison. He asked himself, “Can I live with that?” and he thought, “Yes I can.” But he could not live knowing he had lost a chance to act.
He bid on as much land as possible, driving up the prices for other bidders. Then, he took it a step further and started winning land.
The fear and reticence he experienced up to this point were overcome by a sense of purpose. Tim remembers,
“I was nervous while I was trying to make that decision of what path I should choose and I was nervous when I was driving up the cost for others, and I was kind of having one foot in and one foot out. Once I made the decision to start buying up parcels and I was all the way in, I knew there was no turning back, and I had a tremendous sense of calm come over me at that time. And in fact, one of the BLM agents who was watching me said later that he saw a change in my face and a change in my body posture at that time. Because I had accepted it, I had accepted the role I had to play there, and was willing to deal with that.”
While Tim waits for charges to be released, he continues to garner support for the environmental movement. Giving countless speeches and interviews, he is encouraging people to take responsibility for their future. It might require sacrifice, but when the risk of not doing something is so large, the sacrifice is comparatively small. If we don’t do it, who will?