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Utah Student Who Thwarted Auction of Utah Wilderness Hails Cancellation of Bush Admin Selloff

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has canceled a controversial last-minute Bush administration attempt to auction off nearly 150,000 acres of wilderness in southern Utah. We speak to university student Tim DeChristopher, who was able to delay the sale by posing as a bidder and buying up thousands of acres. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the story we first covered six weeks ago. You may remember Tim DeChristopher. He is the economics student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who made headlines in December when he posed as a bidder in an effort to disrupt a controversial last-minute move by the Bush administration to auction off nearly 150,000 acres of wilderness in southern Utah. Tim DeChristopher ended up buying 22,000 acres of public land located near the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument and other pristine areas. He — well, I think the cost was $1.8 million.

This is Tim DeChristopher speaking on Democracy Now!

    TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Once I started buying up every parcel, they understood pretty clearly what was going on. And so, at that point, they stopped the auction, and some federal agents came in and took me out. And from other people who were in the room afterwards, I guess there was a lot of chaos, and they didn’t really know how to proceed at that point. But then, I was away talking to the federal agents at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher was arrested, and days later, he told Democracy Now! he was ready to go to jail.

    TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I’ve seen the need for more serious action by the environmental movement and to protect a livable future for all of us. I’ve seen that need for a long time. And frankly, I’ve been hoping that someone would step up and someone would come out and be the leader and someone would put themselves on the line and make the sacrifices necessary to get us on a path to a more livable future. And I guess I just couldn’t wait any longer for that someone to come out there and had to accept the fact that that someone might be me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, charges have yet to be filed against Tim DeChristopher, but on Wednesday a major development occurred in the story. President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the former senator from Colorado, canceled the leases to drill for gas and oil on seventy-seven parcels of public land in Utah put up for auction in December. Salazar made the announcement in a phone call with reporters.

    KEN SALAZAR: In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation’s icons, some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes, and did so particularly in Utah. In a December 19, 2008 lease sale, they offered 130 parcels for oil and gas development, seventy-seven parcels of which are close in proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon. The seventy-seven parcels in total contain about 130,000 acres. President Obama and I believe strongly that we need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way.

AMY GOODMAN: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, speaking Wednesday. During the same conference call, Salazar refused to declare the public land in Utah to be permanently off-limits to drilling.

Well, Tim DeChristopher joins us now from Utah. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tim. Your response and where your case stands now?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, my response is, I’m very encouraged by this. I’m glad to see our leaders and our new administration taking a strong stand to defend our land and defend our future.

And really, I’m encouraged to see that in this model, the environmental movement really works. I think this is a great example of how the movement should be working, with groups like SUWA and NRDC that are on the inside pushing through their means of lawsuits or whatever is available to them, and then people like me on the outside that are pushing the boundaries and doing the more controversial things that are raising awareness and really shifting the discussion. And with both of us pushing in our own way, we’re able to be far more effective than either one of us could have been on our own. So I’m really encouraged to see that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you picked up a paddle. You came from your exam at the University of Utah, final exam before Christmas. You go to the protest outside. You decide you don’t think they’re accomplishing much. You walk inside, see they’re not bonding people, so you picked up — what was the number of the paddle?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Number seventy.

AMY GOODMAN: Number seventy, and started bidding on the land. You picked up the prices on some that you didn’t win, and you ended up winning $1.8 million worth of land. What happens to that land now?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, my understanding is that now they kind of have to go back to the drawing board with this land and redo the environmental impact statement, redo the public comment period, reconsider whether this is really land that we should be drilling for oil and gas on. And there’s actually a question of whether they should be redoing the resource management plans that were rushed through, as well. So that’s encouraging to see. And I would expect that after this land and this auction is given the due process that it lacked before, that that land is ultimately going to be protected and that we’re going to find that the highest value for land like this is to be kept in the most pristine condition possible.

AMY GOODMAN: So you affected two bids. One was the land you bought; the other was the land you picked up the prices on. Is all of this now the land that Salazar said cannot be drilled on? And what — I mean, you didn’t pay for the land. What happens to the companies that did?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, I guess the BLM just can’t finalize their checks from the companies that did pay for it. I know that all of the parcels that I bid on or that I won were part of this order from yesterday. So all the ones that I won, they can’t accept my payment for. And then, as far as the ones that I drove up the prices, I don’t know if all of those are included in this or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be charged?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: That’s still undecided. There was a statement from the US attorney’s office here in Salt Lake yesterday that that’s still something that they’re considering and that this doesn’t erase my case. And that’s something that we [inaudible], as well, that this protects the land, and that’s very encouraging to see, but it doesn’t necessarily erase the possibility of prosecution against me. But the thing that it does do is, I think it gives us a lot to stand on legally, because this is now an official statement, as was the ruling a couple weeks ago by a judge, that this was an illegal auction, essentially, and it was inappropriate, and it was land that shouldn’t have been put up for sale in the first place. So, you know, for me, standing up against an illegal act, I think, gives us a lot to stand on, if they do prosecute.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, I want to thank you very much for being with us, environmental activist, student at the University of Utah. In December, he disrupted an auction of Utah’s pristine wilderness to oil and gas companies simply by going in and bidding on land himself.

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