TELLURIDE – When Tim DeChristopher came to Mountainfilm a year ago, he hadn’t yet been convicted of placing false bids at a 2008 federal oil and gas lease auction. But in March of this year, the trial, in Salt Lake City, concluded with a guilty verdict. Neither DeChristopher nor his lawyers were allowed to say why he had impulsively accepted a bidder paddle and pledged $1.8 million he didn’t have for parcels near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In spite of the restricted speech – or perhaps because of it, and the resulting national attention – many consider the trial a watershed in the climate movement. DeChristopher faces a possible 10 years in prison. Sentencing comes June 23.
Meanwhile, the activist, now 29, has kept up a frantic speaking schedule while at the same time “preparing” to do time. I spoke with him by phone this week, a few days before he returns to Mountainfilm, where he will participate in at least four events tied to this year’s theme, “Awareness Into Action.” One of them will be a screening at The Palm Theater of Beth and George Gage’s as-yet-unfinished film about DeChristopher’s unlikely saga, called Bidder 70.
I asked DeChristopher about the comment on his web page from Ken Sleight, who was the real-life model for Ed Abbey’s fictional monkeywrencher, Seldom Seen Smith. Could DeChristopher’s action be considered monkeywrenching?
“No,” DeChristopher said simply. “Ken has been very supportive. But as he has said, there are rules to monkeywrenching: Don’t get caught; and don’t tell anybody about it afterward. The most important aspect of what I’m doing is to let people know, to raise awareness [about fossil fuels and the climate crisis]. It’s not monkeywrenching, it’s civil disobedience.”
I asked about the sentencing, coming up in barely a month. “I’ve been preparing for that for a long time,” he said. “As it’s gotten more realistic, I’ve been looking more at what it actually might be like – where I might be sent; what schedules are like on the inside. Utah doesn’t have any federal prisons. I’ll most likely be sent to Colorado . . . It actually feels less scary as it’s becoming more real. And I’ve been trying to center myself. I just got off a Cataract Canyon [float] trip.”
Is there a chance, in your mind, for an alternate outcome? I asked.
The stoic DeChristopher answered, “That remains to be seen.”
Soon after DeChristopher was charged, in early 2009, he founded a group called Peaceful Uprising. Based in SLC, the group “has taken a growing role in the climate justice movement,” he said. “We participated in civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., last month. We were singing in the balcony of Congress. Hundreds of people peacefully occupied the Department of the Interior building. Twenty-two were arrested; six were from Peaceful Uprising. All of the charges were eventually dropped.
“We are trying to help instill certain principles in the climate justice movement. We want to encourage sustained actions” beyond one-time theatrics, he said. “And we want to encourage song, by being song leaders.” He said that members of Peaceful Uprising would in June be joining a March on Blair Mountain, in West Virginia coal country, and that they “would be singing the whole time. Song has been shown to keep things peaceful,” he said. “And the march itself,” which will follow the route of an historic, and bloody, labor-rights march in 1921, “is likely to be dangerous.” He mentioned Mountainfilm guest Maria Gunnoe (On Coal River), “who lives it every day.” Gunnoe will be in Telluride to talk about her work to end mountaintop removal, and the threatening resistance she has encountered in her rural communities.
I wish I’d asked him what songs they would be singing.
I did ask about DeChristopher’s role in the Youth in Action breakout session of the Friday Symposium (Mason’s Hall, 1:30 p.m.). He had recently spoken at Power Shift 2011, in D.C., to 10,000 youth “energy action” organizers. What sacrifices did he think the youth of today should or would have to make in face of climate change?
“The greatest sacrifice on their part,” he said, “would be to stay the course. To change course is to defend their own future. They’re pretty receptive to that.
“Youth have a special place in the movement,” DeChristopher said. “They have a moral voice, because they’re the ones who are going to be impacted.” He mentioned one young activist, Alec Loorz, who will be attending Mountainfilm and taking part in the Symposium. Loorz was 12 when he saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Now a junior in high school, he is a veteran organizer, having created Kids vs. Global Warming at age 13 and helped inspire a series of iMatter Marches (www.imattermarch.org). His organization has filed lawsuits in all 50 states demanding the federal government do more to protect the atmosphere and ensure the survival of his generation. “He is saying, as kids we should matter to our parents’ generation.”
Come June 23, DeChristopher himself may not be available to march, to Blair Mountain or for iMatter. He is resigned to that likelihood. And he has said that if the climate movement is “to achieve our goal of justice, many more will have to join me as well” – in civil disobedience, which could lead to jail time.
At Mountainfilm, DeChristopher is scheduled to speak at the Friday morning Symposium at High Camp (Mountain Village Conference Center), and again at the Youth in Action breakout session in town. Then again with the Gages at The Palm (Saturday, 9 p.m.) for the Bidder 70 screening. And finally at the Ah Haa School Coffee Talk Monday at 8 a.m. , where he will be part of a panel led by filmmaker Marshall Curry (If A Tree Falls, on the Earth Liberation Front arsons). Curry will be asking the question: How far would you, should you, go for something you believe in? On the panel with DeChristopher will be climate author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature) and Goldman Environmental Prize winners Maria Gunnoe and Hilton Kelly.
For the complete scoop go to Mountainfilm’s website: