Tim DeChristopher, Hydrofracking, and the Need to Protect Public Lands
The Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley face the possibility of serious environmental degradation and water pollution if the hydraulic fracturing moratorium is lifted in New York State. For many who grew up in this area or who currently call it home, this is an appalling and unacceptable possibility. Many people would go to great lengths to protect this pristine piece of land – but exactly how far would you go?
What if you could halt the sale of public lands in the Catskills – land used for hiking, camping, fishing and so much more – to oil and gas companies that plan to build roads and bring in enormous amounts of equipment and trucks to develop the land for drilling?
What if the sale were being rushed through on behalf of the oil and gas industry in an illegal way?
What if you could save 22,000 acres of the land you love?
What if doing so were illegal, and carried a potential sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of $750,000 in fines?
It is likely that when considering this hypothetical situation you answered “yes” to each question, until the last one. Your righteous and daring mood probably gave way, as you thought there could be a better way to approach the situation, or that at least you still have a decent job in a tough economy, or that you do not want to risk losing your freedom and being away from your family or kids.
These are all valid considerations.
What if someone else was willing to do this on behalf of the community? Would you defend his actions, or would silently let him be made an example of by overzealous prosecution by the government?
These are the questions raised by the case of Tim DeChristopher. On Dec. 19, 2009, Tim DeChristopher, then a graduate student at the University of Utah, entered a federal auction being held by the Bureau of Land Management in his home state of Utah with hopes of protesting the sale of public lands. Upon entering, he was asked if he would like to be a bidder. DeChristopher saw his opportunity and proceeded to bid in an effort to drive up prices and win plots of land. He won 14 parcels totaling over 22,000 acres, at a price of $1.8 million, before officials shut down the auction and arrested him. By the end of the auction 148,598 acres had been sold for $7.2 million, an average of $48.65 per acre.
The Obama administration later invalidated the auction due to the fact that the Bureau of Land Management rushed the auction through on behalf of the oil and gas industry. In DeChristopher’s trial, the judge would not allow the invalidation of the auction to be considered by the jury.
DeChristopher’s three-day trial began on June 21, and the jury convicted him on the two felony charges he was facing: making a false statement, and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. DeChristopher faced up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $750,000 for his effort to impede what was later deemed to be an illegal auction. On July 26, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison along with a $10,000 fine.
Having committed an open act of civil disobedience, DeChristopher has said that he is willing to accept legal punishment for his actions. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” DeChristopher reiterated King’s ideas at his sentencing by saying that the issue is not that he lacks respect for the law, but that he has a greater respect for justice.
As a society, however, we need not quietly accept DeChristopher’s punishment. Bidders in government land auctions often do not pay for the bids they win if they no longer see the land as profitable, yet they are not prosecuted. DeChristopher, on the other hand, has been prosecuted for impeding an illegal auction and trying to save a huge plot of public land from being destroyed by oil and gas companies.
Although DeChristopher did not initially intend to pay for the land, he was able to raise enough money to do so. However, the Bureau of Land Management did not accept payment for the land because, according to them, DeChristopher was not bidding under normal circumstances. The judge did not allow the jury to consider these facts either.
Saying that the government is trying to make an example out of DeChristopher is not hyperbole. According to a sentencing memorandum from the U.S. Attorney’s office, “the sentence should be crafted to ‘afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct’ by others.”
The government’s attempt to make an example out of DeChristopher has led to a national movement around his case. On July 26, the day of DeChristopher’s sentencing, people around the country showed their solidarity by holding protests outside of federal district courts including at the site of the sentencing in Salt Lake City, Utah where 26 protesters were arrested.
If you stand for the preservation of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, you should stand in solidarity with Tim DeChristopher. The government’s attempt to make an example out of him is aimed at deterring courageous citizens from acting to protect the environment and their communities in the future, including here in the Hudson Valley. As Governor Cuomo moves toward reinstating the practice of hydrofracking, the need for such courageous citizens may be needed here very shortly.
-Scott McDonald, Public Citizen Summer Intern, Senior at Fordham University