- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Opening statements begin Tuesday in the trial of a 29-year-old man accused of running up prices at an auction for federal drilling leases, a figure who has become a cause celebre among Hollywood stars and environmentalists that call his act of civil disobedience “selfless.”

Tim DeChristopher has pleaded not guilty to felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He is accused of racking up a total of $1.7 million in bids for 13 oil-and-gas leases near Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks, without the ability to pay for them.

DeChristopher, a University of Utah economics student at the time, had offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.

He doesn’t dispute the facts of the case and has said he expects to be convicted. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he’s right.

Prosecutors have offered DeChristopher plea deals over the past two years, but he opted to go to trial.

The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists who want to protect the parcels of land, which totaled 22,500 acres around the two national parks.

About 400 people, including actress Daryl Hannah, gathered for a rally Monday, singing Pete Seeger’s protest song “If I Had Hammer,” criticizing government control of public lands and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to be “set free.”

“I’m here to support Tim, whose selfless act saved Utah’s red rock wilderness from exploitation,” said Salt Lake City resident Sheri Poe Bernard, 55. “This is a very important issue … and I think it’s a travesty that our federal government would put Tim on trial when George W. Bush is not being prosecuted.”

The bids had been made during the final drilling auction of the Bush administration.

A filmmaker from Telluride, Colo., filmed the rally for a documentary about DeChristopher. George Gage said he and his wife spent more than two years on the film, which he hopes will be accepted by Utah’s Sundance Film Festival _ an event founded by actor and director Robert Redford, who also supports DeChristopher.

Federal prosecutors have acknowledged that DeChristopher is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah. His actions led to higher bids for other parcels, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for oil men.

“We were hosed,” said Jason Blake of Park City, shortly after the consulting geologist was outbid on a 320-acre parcel. “It’s very frustrating.”

Not everyone attending the protest march Monday supported the former wilderness guide’s actions. Highland real estate agent Robert Valentine mingled with environmentalists and talked about the need for Utah to “exploit” its natural resources to create jobs and fund the state’s schools.

“I want to protect the natural resources. My hobby is hiking,” the 69-year-old Valentine said. “But I think Utah ought to be allowed to have more control over the resources more than we do.”

DeChristopher, who plans to testify, has said the government violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

Hannah said she believes DeChristopher’s actions have been justified because the federal judge turned back the leases.

“He took a moral stand against injustice. … He’s already been effective,” Hannah said. “This case has the potential to be quite historic and pivotal in terms of our rights as citizens to peacefully protest and practice civil disobedience.”

The trial was expected to last until Friday.