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.