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Jury now decides whether environmental activist Tim DeChristopher is hero or criminal

SALT LAKE CITY — The much belated and bemoaned trial of the modern-day darling of civil disobedience begins today, and as much as Tim DeChristopher has told his story to the throngs, now it's time to tell it to a jury.

DeChristopher, a soft-spoken University of Utah graduate with iron convictions, is being prosecuted in federal court on two charges that could land him in prison for up to 10 years.

Despite the looming possibility of a criminal conviction, DeChristopher has long contended it was his personal convictions that transformed him into bidder No. 70 at a BLM auction, facetiously staking a claim to 13 parcels of land for nearly $1.8 million. The action brought charges in U.S. District Court of violating an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false statement.

Then 27, and an economics major at the University of Utah who bunked with several roommates, DeChristopher said he is so ardently opposed to the nation's relentless thirst for oil — and, he says, the resulting environmental havoc — he had to make a stand.

"I felt like it was such a severe injustice that I am willing to spend a few years in prison to stand in the way of it."

So while protesters milled about on the sidewalk outside the BLM offices in downtown Salt Lake City on a cold December day in 2008, DeChristopher ambled inside to take a closer look.

When an employee asked if he was there to bid, he seized the chance, took up the proverbial sword and was dubbed bidder No. 70.

After so long, officials caught on, and he was escorted out and eventually indicted on two criminal charges.

Since then, DeChristopher has become a larger-than-life folk hero among environmental activists and a champion of civil disobedience.

Supporters have flocked to him, and this past weekend, in the days leading up to the trial, his group — Peaceful Uprising — put on a series of workshops and presentations at an "Empowerment Summit."

Among the offerings were tutorials on "new forms for grassroots leadership," civil disobedience and sacred activism.

His case has caught the attention — and support — of superstars like Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah and singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.

As an organizer of Vietnam War protests, Yarrow said it is unthinkable that a possible 10-year prison sentence looms in DeChristopher's future.

"In years past, jail sentencing for civil disobedience acts," the folk singer said, "unless physical harm was done, was relegated to a respectful, short sentence."

Hannah, who plans to attend DeChristopher's trial, said his actions led to increased national awareness. "I believe Tim was doing us all a favor, putting himself on the line like he did. Tim DeChristopher is a hero, not a criminal."

As much as he says he's prepared to do the time for his crime, DeChristopher has been overwhelmed by the support he's received.

"All the people that have rallied around this in the two years of a long, drawn-out legal battle, I didn't foresee any of that," he said.

DeChristopher's defense team tried unsuccessfully to raise the "necessity defense" on his behalf — that he acted out of necessity when he monkey-wrenched the auction, choosing the "lesser of two evils" to right a wrong. Had he been able to use that defense, DeChristopher could point to global warming and the irreparable harm that would result to future generations as justification for his actions. That effort was thwarted, however, with Judge Dee Benson rejecting the argument and asserting the trial was not going to be turned into a debate on global warming.

Of course, not everyone is starry-eyed when the name DeChristopher pops up —especially those who live and work in Utah's rural counties that heavily depend on the oil and gas industry for jobs and tax revenue.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, has been a particularly vocal and active critic of DeChristopher's tactics, going so far as to run, and push through, legislation in the 2009 session in direct response to the flawed BLM auction.

At the time his measure was put into law, DeChristopher's case was still under review by the U.S. Attorney's Office — and it was unclear if any charges would be filed.

While most third-degree felonies come with a discretionary fine of up to $5,000, Noel's measure makes the fine of $7,500 non-negotiable and such an action a violation of the state penal code as well.

What DeChristopher did, Noel charges, "was totally inappropriate because of the process we go through, which (already) allows for dissent."

Critics who feel BLM parcels proposed for auction are inappropriate because of wilderness qualities or their close proximity to national parks — like DeChristopher argued — can file protests in advance of them being put out to bid.

The BLM can reconsider.

Noel and others contend the process was already publicly vetted — and what DeChristopher did, beyond being criminal — was misguided.

"He reinvented himself as a climate change activist, but what he was doing was contrary to bringing about a meaningful solution for climate change," said Kathleen Sgamma, director of governmental affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, which represents about 400 oil and gas producers in the region.

She points out that while DeChristopher and his supporters like to rail against "big bad oil companies," the reality is that the bidders who would have won those parcels were "small independent producers who were exploring for natural gas, not oil.

"It's a clean burning fuel that offers a meaningful solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," she said. "It's key to backing up intermittent renewable energy resources like wind and solar. "

She added that DeChristopher and his followers, for that reason, "are very misinformed."

But about two months after the botched auction, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew 77 of the parcels offered at the lease-sale, asserting they were hastily offered up in the waning days of the Bush administration.

Too much land that would be drilled and explored was located in close proximity to national parks and monuments, "iconic" treasures of the American West, Salazar said.

It was an "aha" moment for DeChristopher's throng of followers, who could somewhat smugly say Salazar's decision lent credence to their leader's actions.

Later, however, the Department of Interior's own inspector came to an entirely different conclusion after probing the withdrawal, saying there was no evidence that any of the parcels had been rushed to auction as the result of a "midnight" decision of the Bush administration.

The controversy over the oil and gas leasing on BLM land will go on for years — those who oppose further exploration will not back down — and industry has mouths to feed, money to make, and gas tanks to fill.

DeChristopher's trial, in contrast, is expected to last only a few days — and because he freely admits to what he has done and cannot use climate change as his justification — it will be telling to discover what can be argued in his defense.

Whatever happens, the inspiration — and bitterness — that DeChristopher has spun out one moment of defiance will likely last for a long time.

And he's OK with that.

"It's led to so many other people feeling like they also have the ability to take a stand," he said, "and people feeling that desire to stand up to their government when they feel their government is out of line."