We’ve all seen those sitcoms or movies in which someone stumbles into an art auction and, not knowing how it works, idly scratches his nose or pulls his ear and finds himself the owner of a Rembrandt.
Better yet, there’s one of my all-time favorite films, “North by Northwest.” Surrounded at an auction by the bad guys, Cary Grant makes outrageous bids and yells insults until the police arrive and unknowingly haul him off to safety. (“How do we know it’s not a fake?” he shouts about one painting. “It looks like a fake!” A woman sitting in front of him turns and replies, “You’re no fake. You’re a genuine idiot.”)
The Friday before Christmas, a college student in Utah who‘s neither fake nor fool pulled a Cary Grant at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of oil and gas leases for land between two of the most austerely beautiful national parks in the United States — Canyonlands and Arches.
Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old environmental activist and economics major at the University of Utah, was protesting the auction outside a government office building in Salt Lake City and decided to see what would happen if he went inside. Instead of being immediately hustled out, he was asked by a clerk, “Are you here to bid?”
He showed his driver’s license and was given a paddle, no questions asked. Then, as his incredulous roommate looked on, DeChristopher started bidding. “It was just raise my arm as often as possible, Bidder No. 70,” he told a reporter, “I was trying to make it obvious I was there to disrupt the auction.”
But before you could say, “Going, going, gone,” DeChristopher had “bought” 13 lease parcels — around 22,500 acres — for some $1.7 million and, according to BLM officials, driven up other bids by about half a million dollars. At that point, people started to complain and he was taken away by BLM security. Among his competitors: Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, the country’s second biggest independent oil producer.
The auction was part of the fire sale the Bush administration has been holding as it winds down, selling off oil and gas parcels as part of an apparent overall strategy to further carve up American wildlands and deregulate the environment as much as possible before noon on January 20th. The White House may as well have a sign on the fence that reads, “Final Days! Everything Must Go!”
At the end of October, the BLM adopted Resource Management Plans for five field offices in Utah that oversee around 8.7 million acres of public land. Almost immediately, oil and gas lease sales of 360,000 of those acres were announced. Environmental groups filed suit to stop the sale of 100,000 of the acres near national parks and monuments until the National Park Service could do an environmental impact analysis. Nonetheless, the auction at which DeChristopher became a surprise bidder went ahead.
In a November editorial, The Salt Lake Tribune described the Resource Management plans as “an eleventh-hour effort of Bush’s BLM to eliminate federal protections for Utah’s redrock treasures and give extractive industries… a virtual free hand,” a belief echoed by Tim DeChristopher in a blog entry he wrote the day after the auction. “When faced with the opportunity to seriously disrupt the auction of some of our most beautiful lands in Utah to gas and oil developers, I could not ethically turn my back on that opportunity. By making bids for land that was supposed to be protected for the interest of all Americans, I tried to resist the Bush administration’s attempt to defraud the American people.” Some of the land, he said, was selling for as little as $2.25 an acre.
The BLM is contemplating restaging the auction. And whether Tim DeChristopher’s case will come before a Federal grand jury remains up in the air — no one’s even sure whether he broke any laws, and an investigation is ongoing. A legal defense fund has been established and they’ve even started trying to raise $1.7 million to buy the leases upon which he bid (As of Friday, January 9, $45,000 in contributions had come in, enough for the initial payment, DeChristopher said, but the BLM says it’s too late – he’s already in default.).
There’s a website — www.bidder70.org — and DeChristopher’s legal team includes powerful Utah defense attorney Ron Yengich and Pat Shea, who ran the Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration’s second term.
Shea told The Salt Lake Tribune that he admires DeChristopher’s “integrity of purpose” and suggested to the Associated Press that the ease with which his client gained access to the auction – without a bond or other proof of the ability to pay – was indicative of the Bush administration’s “rush before the door slams behind them: ‘Let’s get as many leases out as possible.’” During his BLM tenure, Shea said, access was more tightly controlled.
Tim DeChristopher’s spur-of-the-moment action comes from a long tradition of civil disobedience in America and the belief that, in the oft-quoted words of the June Jordan poem he cites on his blog, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
He wrote, “We have been told that the best we can do is to sign an Internet petition and send our donations so that Big Green could hire lobbyists to fight our battles. The upswelling of grassroots energy is finally responding that we are willing and able to do much more.”
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.