BLM's unheroic response to civil disobedience


"One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” – Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In the Alabama of the mid-nineteen sixties, Martin Luther King could see the arc of history bending before him. He knew that the South’s real heroes were people like Rosa Parks, who defied the law because she wanted to make a better world.

In today’s Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is apparently not so visionary. The BLM’s wildly inconsistent responses to two recent civil-disobedience cases suggest that the agency is as far out of touch with America’s direction now as George Wallace and Bull Connor were in 1963.

Two lawbreakers-of-conscience in Utah—one an environmentalist, the other a local politician and states-rights activist—made headlines recently by deliberately defying the BLM.  Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who placed fraudulent bids to monkeywrench a BLM oil and gas lease sale last December, has been slapped with a two-count felony indictment. Mark Habbeshaw, a Kane County commissioner who in early May led hundreds of ATV riders on a defiant protest ride into a wilderness study area—was … watched. By throwing the book at DeChristopher and not at Habbeshaw, the BLM and the state’s attorney general have created public relations problems for themselves.

Habbeshaw’s ride up the Paria River was the latest chapter in his long-running feud with BLM over vehicle access in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Habbeshaw and his followers claim that the Paria riverbed is a road, and argue that closure to motor traffic constitutes federal impingement on states’ rights. (However the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just rejected the county's lawsuit challenging the restrictions.)

For years, the BLM has bowed to local pressure over enforcement of off-road recreation in Kane County's wilderness and wilderness-study areas—in some cases requesting “voluntary compliance” from locals who are not in the least predisposed to compliance.

When Habbeshaw led his charge up the Paria, BLM did at least take pictures and record license plate numbers, which were then turned over to U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman. But so far, neither the BLM nor Tolman has charged any of the protesters with breaking the law.

The gloves have come off in the DeChristopher case, though. For his attempt to block oil and gas lease sales that could threaten wild lands in Utah, the economics graduate student faces charges that could result in 10 years’ prison time and fines totaling $750,000. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees BLM, has warned that similar tactics in the future would be met with equally aggressive prosecution.

DeChristopher is fighting his case with support from environmentalists from around the country, and using his new fame to speak out on the threats of global warming. Meanwhile, undeterred by the BLM, Habbeshaw has promised to keep championing states' rights by defying wilderness regulations.

The agency is lining up on the wrong side of history. BLM’s incoherent approach to the two cases appears to favor oil and gas development over wilderness protection—at a time when global climate change is finally forcing Americans to acknowledge that the planet’s health is more important than our “right” to run roughshod over it.

If civil disobedience is to produce heroes in the West during this pivotal time, it won’t be people like Habbeshaw, who cling to a Wild West ethic that most Americans no longer will tolerate and that the land can no longer support.

In fact, the West may have found a genuine hero in DeChristopher, who recognizes that we live in a world of limits and is willing to stick his neck out looking for an earth-friendly way into the future.

Feelings of sadness
May 29, 2009 03:02 PM
The powers that be are too content on what has worked, and are blinded to the possibilites of what could work. I believe, we as citizens have fundamental rights, one of which is the right to a clean enviroment. The fact that there are congress people who are commiting illegal acts against protected wildlands is absurd. I'm happy that there are people like Dechristopher out there.
The Paria protest
May 30, 2009 12:49 PM
The trouble is, Habbeshaw *didn't* charge up the Paria. He and his friend Mike Noel whipped their followers into a frenzy 20 or so miles away from the Paria site and then sent them on alone to break the law. Habbeshaw and Noel didn't have the courage to actually LEAD these lawbreakers up the road. If Habbeshaw faces any charges, they should be contempt of court since the 10th Circuit Court has enjoined him against doing just what he did until a final decision is made: encourage people to go on roads that are currently barred from OTV travel. That is what I am closely watching. Meanwhile, if the U.S. Attorney has the courage to actually fine these lawbreakers, I hope they will pay the fines without complaint since any act of civil disobedience should carry with it the willingness to face the consequences of the action. If there are complaints, then perhaps these lawbreakers really don't believe so much in the principles they espouse after all.
CGW's correction
Michael Wolcott
Michael Wolcott
May 31, 2009 09:11 PM

Thank you. I read the SL Trib's story too quickly and inferred that Mark Habbeshaw led the protest ride up the Paria, which he apparently did not. (The story is not clear one way or the other.)
Michael Dorey
Michael Dorey
May 31, 2009 08:59 AM
Unlikely bedfellows at best. One activist was trying to protect wilderness, the other was doing the opposite. "Wilderness ATV Travel" is an oxymoron.
So, it’s okay for enviros to be inconsistent but not the BLM?
May 31, 2009 01:02 PM
Yes, the inconsistency appalls me here. Both acts were illegal and both acts should be punished. BLM should throw the book at Habbeshaw and his ignorant buddies.

Having said that, give me a break with the "Tim DeChristopher is a hero" line. Make no mistake about it: if you support what Tim did then you support NO oil and gas leasing on our public lands. If you let him get away with it, there will never be another successful BLM oil and gas lease sale (thus the BLM's (unjustifiably) heavy hand). That might be great for many of you, but that’s not balance in my mind. We need to force energy companies to spend the necessary money to mitigate their impacts and we need to put important places off limits. However, there is a space for responsible oil and gas development on public lands. Putting the argument aside about whether these specific parcels in Utah should have been offered, when you support sabotage of leasing on public lands, you stand for NO development. Sorry that I think developing our own energy resources responsibly can be consistent with conserving and protecting environmental values. Not to mention no leasing goes against the mission and laws that bind the BLM.

Finally, if you’re holding up Tim as a hero that shouldn’t be punished for his deeds, you’re hypocrites. In hailing DeChristopher for breaking the law but condemning Habbeshaw, you’re doing the exact same thing the BLM is. Preferential treatment is not acceptable from the agency and it’s not acceptable from the environmental community.
Inconsistency for enviros?
Michael Wolcott
Michael Wolcott
May 31, 2009 09:06 PM

Clearly I support what Tim DeChristopher did. But how does this make me a foe of EVERY oil and gas lease sale on public lands? DeChristopher disrupted ONE particularly suspect auction.

I agree with you that "there is a space for responsible oil and gas development on public lands." In fact, it is necessary. However, I am opposed to unnecessarily destructive ones (as I'm sure you are, too). I admire TD's civil disobedience because it was gutsy, bold and effective.

I disagree with the ATV riders who challenged BLM on the Paria; I do not disagree with their tactics. But I believe strongly they should be punished, in a way that befits the crime. BLM has failed again and again in the Grand Staircase-Escalante to enforce its own regulations.

As MLK made clear, anyone committing an act of civil disobedience must be willing to face the consequences of the action. So I do believe DeChristopher should face the music. But I also believe justice would be best served by leniency.
No inconsistency if you believe both lawbreakers should face the music
Jun 01, 2009 09:18 AM
Hi Michael. Good piece, by the way. Thanks for holding BLM’s feet to the fire on the Habbeshaw issue.

I say that there will never be another successful oil and gas lease sale if the government doesn’t prosecute Tim because the next lease sale will surely have a DeChristopher or two present to falsely bid on parcels. If there isn’t a deterrent, clever opponents will disrupt every lease sale. I realize you and I and maybe even Tim don’t oppose every parcel up for lease. However, we also know quite well that there is SOMEONE out there who would oppose every lease parcel. Most lease parcels in every sale are protested, whether by NIMBYs or conservation groups. Add on a small handful of more radical no-lease enviros who would gladly travel to Salt Lake or Denver once every 3 months, and you can see how likely it would be that every lease sale would be disrupted if there were no penalty for doing so. Thus, no more leasing of federal minerals. I believe this is what DOI is afraid of.

By saying you do believe DeChristopher should face the music, you do not fall into the trap of preferential treatment. That accusation wasn’t aimed at you personally anyway, as I was using “you” in the plural sense. I’ve heard and seen a lot of folks saying DeChristopher is a hero and should not be prosecuted. It’s not so much the first part of that statement that bothers me (I also respect Tim for standing up to what he believes in and facing the music); it’s the second part that’s the inconsistency.

Just one more note: I’ve read the regulations addressing who is eligible to bid on lease parcels. I see nowhere that normal US citizens cannot bid on parcels. So why don’t we test the system, but this time we’ll actually come up with the money? Environmentalists should be allowed to bid on these parcels as well. I’d be happy to leave it up to the market to decide whether those leased minerals should be developed or conserved for the 10-year life of the lease.
Lease auctions vulnerable?
Michael Wolcott
Michael Wolcott
Jun 02, 2009 07:28 AM

You've read more about the lease process than I. If your take is accurate, then it does indeed seem that more monkeywrenching is likely in the future. Wonder why it hasn't happened more often already?
No one else had the guts?
Jun 02, 2009 04:18 PM
I’ve had conversations with environmentalists about biding on lease parcels, but it was always in a hypothetical/joking “wow, wouldn’t that be a hoot” sense. We even talked about how it should be possible for ANYONE to bid and pay for a lease. I’m not sure what the law says today. Here’s the Colorado BLM webpage describing leasing policy:[…]/CO_leasing_information.html

I can’t find anything on this page indicating that any party with money can’t lease minerals. Maybe HCN could do an investigation and let us know if this is possible. I would have liked to see what BLM did if DeChristopher actually came through with the $1.7 million or whatever he owed for the parcels he bid on. From what I’m seeing, they should have awarded him the parcels. The state would still get their royalties from the lease—however, there would be no royalties from produced oil and gas. Only after he didn’t come up with his $1.7 million was the fraud charge leveled.

It could be inferred from one account that DeChristopher didn’t even have bidding on parcels in mind when he went to the BLM lease sale in SLC. He might have wanted to participate in the demonstration, but was asked by the BLM receptionist, “Are you here for the lease sale.” He said, “uh, sure!” She gave him a bidding paddle and let him in. I understand DeChristopher was allowed into the auction just by showing his ID—he did not even need to prove he represented an oil and gas company. Maybe that was a security lapse by BLM—I don’t know.

So even though it surely crossed the minds of environmentalists and leasing opponents to sabotage a lease sale, none had the gumption to actually try it until Tim came along. Maybe no one had the necessary knowledge on how a lease sale worked to be comfortable enough to try to pull it off. Or, possibly, BLM was screening for only oil and gas representatives and previous attempts to disrupt were thwarted. I don’t know enough about lease sales to tell you if this BLM protocol or not; and again, couldn’t a citizen point to the policy and say “Your rules say I’m an adult citizen of the US. I am eligible to participate in this lease sale.” Again, some brave investigative reporter from HCN should try in the next lease sale in August!

Anyway, now that the environmental community knows this can be done, and if there is no penalty for doing so, I definitely think there would be a good chance future lease sales would be disrupted.
Easy to prevent further monkeywrenching
susan finlayson
susan finlayson
Jun 03, 2009 12:08 PM
DeChristopher was able to monkeywrench the process in Utah because nobody required official documentation from him. Preventing further monkeywrenchers would be as easy as changing the check-in policy for future auctions. Prosecuting him is just about enforcing the law and protecting energy companies. Wish the BLM felt as passionate about protecting sensitive wilderness areas.

Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jun 03, 2009 11:38 PM
I can support DeChristopher's monkey-wrenching oil leases that would have caused sight-line, noise and air pollution in NPS units, while still supporting responsible oil leases (which we don't necessarily have now on BLM land further away from NPS units). Oil leases that promise for better BLM monitoring, and higher cash deposits on reserve against spills, etc., I'm OK with.
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Jun 03, 2009 06:18 PM
It's beyond me why Secretary Salazar wants to throw the book at civil disobedience when it comes to one person who hurt no one, if in fact bidding under false pretenses actually broke any laws, but chooses to ignore damage to the land he is sworn to protect. Hmmm. The BLM has many stupids. Time to write them again and point out the error of their ways. Try reading Craig Childs "The Secret Knowledge of Water" to find out the damage the rough riders in Utah could have caused just because they could. Utahns have to realize they don't own the land and I won't settle for their wrecking it.