One Man's Bid To Save A Scenic Landscape

Tim DeChristopher
Student and environmentalist Tim DeChristopher, who bid $1.7 million on 22,000 acres of land at auction for oil and gas drilling leases as an act of civil disobedience.
CBS

The Bush administration has only two days left, but right up to the end, it's been taking actions that have environmentalists fuming.

One of those actions had been a plan - enacted in the waning months of the administration - for the Bureau of Land Management to auction off oil-and-gas drilling leases in Utah on spectacular scenery near national parks and ancient rock art panels.

But environmentalist Tim DeChristopher had an unorthodox plan to disrupt those auctions, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

DeChristopher moved from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to study economics at the University of Utah, and to enjoy the region's wild beauty.

"There are a lot of scenes that make your jaw drop," DeChristopher said. "It's not like any other place in the world."

When DeChristopher learned of the Bush plan, he said he had to act, and jointing protests would not be enough.

"Following the standard ways of creating change: that's not really going to be effective in this case," he said.

So, after his final exam, he went to the auction and talked his way in: "They said, 'Are you here to be a bidder?' And I said, 'Why yes I am.'"

DeChristopher planned to disrupt the auction with shouts of protest. But, on the spot, he came up with a more disruptive plan: He bid on the oil leases, driving prices way up on some parcels and outright winning bids on 22,000 acres of land for $1.7 million - money that he has neither the means nor the intention of paying.

He threw the auction into chaos.

"It cost us potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars," one competing bidder said.

"He defrauded the government, he defrauded the public by going in and bidding on these parcels," said Jason Blake, another bidder.

Environmentalists hauled out the big guns to shoot down the Utah land auction.

"The fact that they are shoving this in at the last moment as they're going out the door is typical of the last eight years," actor and environmentalist Robert Redford told CBS News.

But what the environmentalists couldn't do, DeChristopher did, and under the Obama administration, the land likely will not go on the auction block again.

"I suppose that is one of the reasons I started studying economics," DeChristopher said. "If we want to effect change we have to use the economic tools to do it."

He's now the darling of many environmentalists. A Web site, www.bidder70.org has raised $45,000 to actually pay for the leases DeChristopher bought. It's also cataloguing the media coverage of his defiant act and continuing to press his cause.

But the federal government says it's too late. DeChristopher could face fraud charges in federal court.

"I realized that there would be sever consequences, and that there would be a good chance that I would go to prison," DeChristopher said.

But if that's the price - he says he's willing to pay it.